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Fifty Year Friday: Far Out 1967, Part Two

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If one is looking to highlight the best representation of “Far Out” in jazz music, one may very well settle with placing the spotlight on musician and philosopher Sun Ra, more formally known as Le Sony’r Ra.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama in May 1914 with the more mundane name of “Herman Poole Blount”, and early on nicknamed “Sonny”, Sun Ra was a precocious and highly intelligent child soon writing his own compositions at the age of twelve as well as exhibiting good sight reading skills and piano technique.  Living in Birmingham,  he was able to hear many famous bands and jazz artists including Fletcher HendersonDuke Ellington, and Fats Waller.  It is said that Sun Ra, much like other gifted musicians like Wolfgang Mozart, had the ability to hear a single performance (in this case a big band performance) and then later accurately transcribe the music that had played.  He attended college for a year on a scholarship as a music education major, but dropped out: according to Sun Ra this being due to an extra-terrestrial  experience as initiated by aliens.

In Sun Ra’s own words: “They wanted me to go to outer space with them. They were looking for somebody who had that type of mind. They said it was quite dangerous because you had to have the perfect discipline. I’d have to go up with no part of my body touching outside of the beam….It looked like a giant spotlight shining down on me, and I call it ‘transmolecularization’ — my whole body was changed into something else…. I call that an energy transformation because I wasn’t in human form. I thought I was there, but I could see through myself.

“Then I landed on a planet I identified as Saturn. First thing I saw was something like … a long rail of a railroad track coming out of the sky, … then I  found myself in a huge stadium, and I was sitting up in the last row, in the dark… They called my name, and I didn’t move. They called me name again, and I still didn’t answer. Then all at once they teleported me, and I was down on that stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop [my college music teacher training] because there was going to be great trouble in schools. There was going to be trouble in every part of life….”

After leaving college, Sun Ra formed his own band, “The Sonny Blount Orchestra”, with intense rehearsals only surpassed by Sun Ra’s own committment to music. When drafted in 1942, Sun Ra declared himself a conscientious objector, ultimately ending up performing alternative civilian service, assigned to forestry work during the day and played the piano at night.

In 1945 he moved to Chicago, part of the wave of migration of American slave descendants from the south to the north and got a job arranging for Fletcher Henderson in 1946. He also had work accompanying Billie Holiday and played in a trio with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and violinist Stuff Smith.

In 1952, Sun Ra forms a “space trio” and changes his name to “Le Sony’r Ra” — the trio later becoming an orchestra, the Sun Ra Arkestra, as he starts to simply refers to himself as Sun Ra.  In 1957, he and his friend and business manager, Alton Abraham, establish the “Le Saturn Records” label, perhaps the first African-American record label. From 1957-1966, album after album is released, with well over one hundred albums recorded during Sun Ra’s career.  Sun Ra’s catalog displays a wide range of musical styles.  Some notable titles include the 1957 release, “Super-Sonic Jazz” with some particularly unusual albums in the mid-sixties, including not only his free-jazz or more exotic material, but even more accessible albums like  “Impressions Of a Patch Of Blue” with Walt Dickerson, and the Sun Ra Blues Project’s “Batman and Robin”, both from 1966.

Less accessible, and one of his furthest-out albums, is his LP, “Strange Strings”, recorded in 1966 and released in 1967.

The first track “Worlds Approaching”, is brilliant — one of those original works that defy categorization: structured, somewhat tonal, dramatic, and ablaze with intensity and energy. This is music that might have really come from Outer Space!

The second track of the first side “Strings Strage, and the entire second side, “Strange Strings”,  share common ground with some of the “concert hall” aleatoric music (music that incorporates elements of chance) of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Basically, after assembling the widest and wildest variety of string instruments  including UkulelesMandolinsKotosKoras, Pipas and any other string instruments that could be located, supplemented by a sheet of metal, and miked “sun columns” (golden metal tubes with rubber bottoms), Sun Ra assembled his orchestra, the Sun Ra Arkestra, distributed the instruments, and told his musicians: “You’re playing from ignorance–it’s an exercise in ignorance. We’re going to play what you don’t know and what you don’t know is huge”, both acknowledging their lack of training and experience in playing these instruments and instructing them to perform music representing their general metaphysical ignorance.

It’s clearly music that would be more interesting to experience live than on an LP or CD.  It’s noteworthy that these are talented musicians, experienced in free jazz expression, and guided during the performance by some direction from their leader. It’s also particularly interesting that no effort was made to tune these instruments and so the result is extreme microtonal free jazz.

From a historical perspective, it’s important to acknowledge Sun Ra’s role in Afrofuturism and in asserting his own and others’ civil rights.   Groundbreaking individuals like Sun Ra and George Russell extended the role of the African-American jazz musician from on-demand performers to innovators, thought leaders and philosophy- artists.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

12″ Vinyl

All songs by Sun Ra
Side A:

  1. “Worlds Approaching”
  2. “Strings Strange”

Side B:

  1. “Strange Strings”

Musicians

  • Sun Ra – electric piano, lightning drum, timpani, squeaky door, strings
  • Marshall Allen – oboe, alto saxophone, strings
  • John Gilmore – tenor saxophone, strings
  • Danny Davis – flute, alto saxophone, strings
  • Pat Patrick – flute, baritone saxophone, strings
  • Robert Cummings – bass clarinet, strings
  • Ali Hassan – trombone, strings
  • Ronnie Boykins: bass viol
  • Clifford Jarvis – timpani, percussion
  • James Jacson – log drums, strings
  • Carl Nimrod – strings
  • Art Jenkins – space voice, strings

One of the leading modern composers during the 1960s and 1970s, Karlheinz Stockhausen is one of the fifty-plus people displayed on the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s cover, and the only musician or composer on the landmark cover besides the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

One of his most notable works, is “Hymnen”, a nod to various national anthems (it is divided into four “Regions” each corresponding to a national anthem) and was first performed on November 30, 1967. It must be a challenging work to listen to live; it is long and comes across as somewhat random: it is particularly challenging to listen to a recorded version.  The work consists of a recorded backdrop (tape) which the musicians interact with by improvising and following scored cues provided by the composer.  It is claimed to be a masterpiece by some, but like many of the products of this period created by Stockhausen and his fellow composers, it relies heavily on what the listener brings to the experience.  In a concert hall, with one being part of a seated (captive) audience, one is much more likely to engage with the music than if one puts on an LP or CD of this work.  For me, it’s hard to listen to more than twenty or thirty minutes without feeling compelled to switch to something else, particularly when having a fairly large music library of more accessible music.

Hymnen

Hymnen Recordings

  • youtube (Hymnen Elektronische und Konkrete Musik. Deutsche Grammophon DG 2707039 (2LPs). Reissued on CD as part of Stockhausen Complete Edition 10)
  • BBC Broadcast 2009  and 2016
  • Ausstrahlungen: Andere Welten: 50 Jahre Neue Musik in NRW. Koch / Schwann 2-5037-0 (2 CDs). Includes Hymnen: Dritte Region mit Orchester Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Köln conducted by Peter Eötvös (recorded 1979)
  • Hymnen Elektronische und Konkrete Musik; Hymnen Elektronische und Konkrete Musik mit SolistenAloys Kontarsky (piano), Alfred Ailings and Rolf Gehlhaar (amplified tamtam), Johannes G. Fritsch (electric viola), Harald Bojé (electronium). Stockhausen Complete Edition: Compact Disc 10 A-B-C-D (4 CDs)
  • Hymnen Elektronische Musik mit Orchester. Gürzenich-Orchester der Stadt Köln, conducted by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen Complete Edition: Compact Disc 47.

01

There’s no shortage of far-out pop/rock albums in 1967.  In May 1967, Elektra records releases this narrative concept album (poems read over and integrated into a musical background) of twelve tracks — one for each of the signs of the Zodiac.  Like the the Sun Ra album and Stockhausen’s “Hymnen”, this work benefits from being played in a dark room or with one’s eye’s closed, however, in this case, the producers of this work made sure to include the instructions “Must be Played in the Dark” on the back of the album — and one is well advised to follow such instructions.

From its air-raid like opening to its tranquil conclusion, this album is exploration of 1967 psychedelia, far out, but within convenient reach of most listeners. Notable is the presence of the moog synthesizer, electronic keyboards, sitar, and jazz musician Bud Shank  on bass flute, all in support sixties-styled melodiously cool lyrics read in the most mellow delivery possible. The tracks vary in tone and style and are generally quite interesting  including the more progressive sections of music found in tracks like “Scorpio” with its heavy percussion, dark suspenseful bass line and mixed meter passages and the adventurous “Sagittarius” (also laden with interesting percussion work and a playful mixed meter riff.) One can make the case for this as being both the first rock concept album (it precedes Nirvana “The Story of Simon Simopath by a couple of months) and the first progressive rock album (coming out several months before “Days of Future Passed” and apparently a few days before “Sgt. Peppers.”)  To what degree this adventurous “Zodiac Cosmic Sounds” influences later concept albums, such as The Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Passed” which covers times of the day as opposed to Zodiac signs, is something I invite speculation on. Feel free to muse about this on your own time or in the comments section of this post.

Anyone who prides themselves on understanding the history of progressive rock should consider this album to be required listening. Lyrics are available here.  Album currently not in print, but available used from multiple sources and youtube.

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Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All lyrics written by Jacques Wilson

  1. “Aries – The Fire-Fighter” – 3:17
  2. “Taurus – The Voluptuary” – 3:38
  3. “Gemini – The Cool Eye” – 2:50
  4. “Cancer – The Moon Child” – 3:27
  5. “Leo – The Lord of Lights” – 2:30
  6. “Virgo – The Perpetual Perfectionist” – 3:05
  7. “Libra – The Flower Child” – 3:28
  8. “Scorpio – The Passionate Hero” – 2:51
  9. “Sagittarius – The Versatile Daredevil” – 2:06
  10. “Capricorn – The Uncapricious Climber” – 3:30
  11. “Aquarius – The Lover of Life” – 3:45
  12. “Pisces – The Peace Piper” – 3:19

Personnel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When drafted

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Fifty Year Friday: The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

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Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Released on May 26, 1967 in the UK and a week later in the US, this is the album that boldly launched the progressive rock era.  If you lived in the US, Canada or UK, and were old enough, it was about fifty years ago today, that you first heard “Sgt. Pepper’s” play — either on a friend’s turntable, your record player or the radio.

One year earlier, The Beach Boys had released “Pet Sounds”, an album that unquestionably influenced the Sgt. Pepper album, and which has an important place in the history of progressive rock.  From an interview with Paul McCartney:

“The early surf records…I was aware of them as a musical act, and I used to like all that, but I didn’t get deeply interested in it—it was just a real nice sound…We used to admire the singing, the high falsetto really and the very sort of ‘California’ lyrics.

“It was later…it was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. First of all, it was Brian’s writing. I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life—I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard that album. I was into the writing and the songs.”

One important McCartney takeaway from Pet Sounds, is the liberation of the bass guitar from playing just the root notes of chords. For non-musicians, a chord can be in basic (root) position, such as C E G C for a simple C major chord, with the lowest note being C, or can be in first inversion, with the lowest note on E, or in second inversion position with the lowest note being on G.  Simple pop music often sticks to the bass always playing the root note.   On “Sgt. Pepper’s” tracks like “Getting Better” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, McCartney will sometimes play the third or fifth note of that chord — or even, in a few cases, play non-chord notes creating temporary musical tension.

Other important characteristics of progressive rock present in “Sgt. Peppers” include carefully crafted arrangements, non-traditional harmonic progressions, modal scales, unusual instruments, tape-based effects and an overall character that creates an artistically unified gestalt even though individual works vary significantly in mood and compositional techniques.

Though we may perceive a unified album, this is still a collection of individual songs, with two songs originally intended for this album, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, not included. “Strawberry Fields Forever” required around fifty-five hours of studio time for completion, thus setting the level of craftsmanship and attention to detail employed for the entire Sgt. Peppers album. The mellotron, an instrument used in later progressive rock albums like King Crimson’s “Court of the Crimson King”, dominates the introduction to”Strawberry Fields.” The use of unusual instrument combinations and arrangements is present in most of the songs on “Sgt. Peppers.”

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The album begins with the sounds of delicately light crowd noise and a string section tuning up, just as if one were present in the concert hall for an evening at the symphony. However, this is followed with forceful electric guitar, drums, bass, and emphatic McCartney vocals with audience noise then shifting to the less restrained enthusiasm of a dance hall. This is followed by a quartet of French horns, laughter, and the re-entry of vocals and rock instruments with interspersed applause.  This first song, the title song, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” transforms, without break, to the upbeat, feel-good, relatively conventional,  “With a Little Help from My Friends”; Ringo is on vocals, drums and tambourine, George Martin plays Hammond Organ, George Harrison is on lead guitar, Paul McCartney, of course, plays bass, and John Lennon and McCartney handle the chorus and supporting vocals.

The third track on side one, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, starts off with McCartney’s Bach-like broken-chord based melody and includes Harrison on tambura (a fretless, long-necked, Indian stringed instrument) with Ringo adding maracas.  “Getting Better” with its pulsating intro and hints of 3 against 2 includes George Martin on amplified pianette (a keyboard instrument that had been left in the studio from a previous recording session), playing it normally by depressing keys and with mallets striking against the strings, Harrison on tambura, and Ringo on congas.  The pentatonic-based “Fixing a Hole” includes harpsichord and “She’s Leaving Home”, with its wistful, affective lyrics and music, begins with solo harp, followed by bowed strings with strings, harp and Lennon’s supporting vocals providing that extra Beatles’ magic throughout.

Side one concludes with the studio-crafted masterpiece, “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, which merges various tape tricks including snippets of tape for particular musical-based sound effects and a section of tape (running at double speed) of Martin playing runs on the Hammond Organ along with Lennon on organ and McCartney on guitar. Instruments include harmonium, piano, Hammond organ, Lowrey organ, harmonica, shaker bells as well as guitar, bass and drums.  Listen for the adventurous harmonic swirl and chromatic runs in the two instrumental passages at the one minute and two minute mark which include the sped up tape passage, use of tape snippets (at least one sample sounds reversed) and tape loops. Chromatic-based passages on a pipe organ or calliope, harkening back to Julius Fučík‘s famous “March of the Gladiators“,  have often been used to invoke images of the circus, but Martin and the Beatles take this to another level.

On side two, “Within You, Without You”, like the earlier “Revolver” album’s “Love You Too”, invokes Indian Classical music with its use of multiple Indian instruments played by Harrison and skilled Indian musicians.  Instruments include sitar, tambura, dilruba (a fretted stringed instrument with sympathetic strings) tabla, svarmandal (multi-stringed zither-like instrument) as well as several violins, two cellos and Harrison’s acoustic guitar. Lennon, McCartney and Ringo sit this one out.

Side two continues with the English music hall influenced “When I am Sixty-Four”, written originally by McCartney on his home piano at age 15 or 16.  The original recording was in C Major but McCartney had George Martin raise this up a semitone by speeding the tape so that the song is now in the less common key of D flat.  For me, this track stands out as a relief point against the rest of the album, pairing nicely with McCartney’s “Lovely Rita”, and adding an important contrast that elevates this entire album.  Not everyone, including John Lennon supposedly, had the same opinion. Listen for the tubular bells played by Ringo and the trio of clarinets arranged by George Martin.

“Lovey Rita” starts off with upbeat guitar and typical Beatles’ backing vocals (“aaahhh”) punctuated nicely by Ringo. Listen for the return of those trademark backup vocals and drums at the 1 minute mark followed by Martin’s honky-tonk-style piano. This slightly distorted piano sound was created by applying tape to the tape capstan to create a wobbly distortion.  Also listen to the paper and combs before the vocal phrase “”When it gets dark I tow your heart away”, as well as the John Lennon coda that makes an effective transition to the crowing rooster in “Good Morning.”

John Lennon’s “Good Morning” was evidently inspired by the Kellogg’s Corn Flake Jingle (“Good morning, good morning, the best to you each morning”.)  It opens up like a march with accompanying saxophones, followed by Ringo’s heavy-step snare and continues with a marching-band ethos laced here and there with electric guitar and, at the end, animal sounds including dogs, cat, lion, trampling horses and what could very well be the start of a fox hunt, heralded by French horn.

The title track returns, creating energy midway by modulating up a whole tone from F Major to G Major, the key of the opening of “Day in the Life”, which immediately follows. If one is not convinced this album heralds in the era of progressive rock, such an assertion can easily be supported by the five and half minute (short by the average length of later progressive rock songs), multi-section “Day in the Life” with orchestra, harmonium, harp, piano, and alarm clock. Take note of the skyrocketing orchestra passage that binds Lennon’s section (ending with”But I just had to look having read the book. I’d love to turn you on.”) to McCartney’s “Woke up, fell out of bed….”  As described in the NY Times: “Mr. Martin’s solution was to take a page out of the playbooks of classical composers like John Cage and Krzysztof Penderecki, who at the time were creating works in which chance played a role. Mr. Martin hired 40 symphonic musicians for a session on Feb. 10, and when they turned up, they found on their stands a 24-bar score that had the lowest notes on their instruments in the first bar, and an E major chord in the last. Between them, the musicians were instructed to slide slowly from their lowest to highest notes, taking care not to move at the same pace as the musicians around them.”

Those with CD versions of this will be missing the last track of the album: the approximately two-second-duration inner grove, which was intentionally ignored by automatic turntables and could only be played on manual turntables.  Another feature of the original UK Parlophone LP,  not evident on CDs and some US pressings, is that the tracks do not have the typical pop album separation between them and thus the surface of the record is similar to a classical record.

sgtp record

With the Beatles no longer interested in live performance appearances, part of the intent of “Sgt Peppers” was to go beyond music that could be recreated live.  The production values and layering of sound influences many later recordings, particularly of notable mention is Queen’s “Night at the Opera.”

People are certainly entitled to have differing opinions on whether “Sgt. Pepper’s” is truly a concept album.  The reprise of the title song before “Day in the Life” is not enough to automatically make this so.  The songs more or less share similar production values, but clearly are not on a single topic or share melodic or harmonic material.  Perhaps if there is a concept,  it is the general intent, as on The Beach Boy’s “Pet Sounds” album, to produce a unified set of songs that achieve both a stylistic identity and set a standard of quality that ultimately influences other musicians. For the sake of argument, let’s concede that “Sgt. Peppers” is indeed a concept album.

If we do then agree it is a concept album, it is certainly not accurate to call this the first concept album, as Zappa’s “Freak Out” was released in 1966 and jazz had several concept albums before this including John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” from 1965 and Dave Brubeck’s 1959 “Time Out”.  There were actually a significant number of themed jazz and exotica albums released in the fifties and one may have to go back to Woody Guthrie’s 1940 album,  “Dust Bowl Ballads” to find the first themed record album.  If one considers the medium of the “record album” as the means of recording music and the collective music as either a concept or not, then one then finds thousands upon thousands of earlier examples of concept music including Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” of 1918, Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony”, Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes From Childhood”), Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and WinterreiseBeethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Franz Josef Haydn’s “Philosopher Symphony”, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and numerous operas, including Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, which was first performed in 1607 and still performed today.  That’s just western music.  Concept music can be traced back to many cultures of all continents including the American Indians, many African tribes, Balinese dance-drama and music from the 6th Century operas of the Northern Qi Dynasty of China.  And, for all we know dolphins and whales may have developed concept music long before humans ever roamed the earth.  (Yes!  An opportunity to promote “The Beluga Beliefs” website.)

It’s not the concept album that puts the Beatles in good company, it is the quality of the work, a true group effort of excellence by Paul McCartney, George Martin and the rest of the Beatles.

This is music that transcends the times of the mid sixties and is appreciated now by more people than ever.  Such is how we identify great music: it stands the test of time and is accessible and appealing to people from many different cultures and backgrounds.

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TRACK LISTING (from Wikipedia)

Side one
No. Title Lead vocals Length
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band McCartney 2:02
2. With a Little Help from My Friends Starr 2:44
3. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds Lennon 3:28
4. Getting Better McCartney 2:48
5. Fixing a Hole McCartney 2:36
6. She’s Leaving Home McCartney with Lennon 3:35
7. Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! Lennon 2:37
Side two
No. Title Lead vocals Length
1. Within You Without You Harrison 5:04
2. When I’m Sixty-Four McCartney 2:37
3. Lovely Rita McCartney 2:42
4. Good Morning Good Morning Lennon 2:41
5. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) Lennon, McCartney and Harrison 1:19
6. A Day in the Life Lennon and McCartney 5:39
Total length: 39:52

Track lengths and lead vocals per Mark Lewisohn and Ian MacDonald.

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