April 24, 2023

Sun Ra and me

From L to R: Sun Ra, Walt Dickerson & yours truly

Nobody has ever asked me to write liner notes for an album, until now.  The album in question is Haverford College, Jan. 25, 1980 by Sun Ra.  It was released in physical form last weekend for Record Store Day 2023 (discogs.com/release/26666099-Sun-Ra-Haverford-College-1980-Solo-Piano) and previously as Bandcamp download in 2019 (sunramusic.bandcamp.com/album/haverford-college-1980-solo-piano).

So why am I writing liner notes for a Sun Ra album?  Well, it's because I was one of the promoters of the concert on the recording.  The album and the concert make a pretty good story, and you can read about it in the liner notes below.  My notes follow those of Irwin Chusid, the administrator of Sun Ra's estate and the person who asked to publish my reminiscences.  Thank you, Irwin!
For a 3-minute summary, here's an interview about the album that I did as a Record Store Day promotion with my long-time friend Jim Bland, owner of Plan 9 Music in Richmond: facebook.com/watch/?v=932921114422140.

This Sun Ra 1980 solo set at Haverford College has been kicking around the internet and in the digital libraries of Ra collectors for years, though it has not previously been properly mastered or commercially issued. Like many events in Ra's history, this gig has a story that goes beyond the music. Ra's presence onstage that night came about through an unforeseen chain of events that unfolded up until concert time (as explained below).
This is a very unique performance. Sun Ra is notorious for his aggressive keyboard attack and seemingly schizophrenic stylings—which can musically rocket from A to Z and back without transitional bridges. This set offers a marked contrast. Ra's instrument here is the celeste-like Fender Rhodes electric piano, which has a distinct sound (instantly recognizable in the Doors' "Riders on the Storm") and an interesting history. There are few pyrotechnics in this performance, and much restraint. Ra sounds relaxed and contemplative. It's Soothing Sounds for Saturnians.
The meditative concert covers Ra's customary approach to solo outings: 1) original Ra crowd pleasers ("Space is the Place," "Love in Outer Space"); 2) standards ("St. Louis Blues," "Rhapsody in Blue," "Over the Rainbow"); and 3) untitled improvisations (here assigned the titles "Haverford Impromptu" numbers one and two).
The lovely recurring melody of "Haverford Impromptu #1" sounds familiar—and sounds composed—but we could not conclusively identify it. We asked Ra discographer Christopher Trent if he could ID the work. "That’s a composition, not improvised," Trent claimed. "Ra would invent new tunes at his keyboard, and sometimes develop them into finished pieces for the Arkestra. Other works never became thoroughly developed, and being prone to spontaneity, Ra might perform them at unexpected moments. There are quite a few keyboard compositions which he recorded only once, and which—like this—do not sound improvised. 'Monorails and Satellites' and 'The Adventures of Bugs Hunter' come to mind."
Despite the "Fender Rhodes" name, the keyboard was not invented by Fender. It was developed in the 1940s by Harold Rhodes, who licensed the product to Fender in 1959. Fender modified the design, added their trademark name, and undertook the marketing campaign that made this piano iconic, particularly during the 1970s. Fender produced 73- and 88-key models. Although considered an "electric piano," the Rhodes is actually an acoustic instrument with amplification. Unlike many "electronic" keyboards, the Rhodes has no digital components; it has internal hardware (metal tines, in place of conventional strings) that can produce sounds even when the device is turned off. Electrical current activates pickups which amplify the hammer action. The resultant sound is less resonant than a piano, and more of a bell-like chime.
The 1969 Fender Rhodes was sold with an attached “suitcase” stereo amplifier (on which the keyboard sat) designed to create unique panning and reverb effects. Esquivel loved this instrument and featured it on his final two RCA Victor albums. Several classic late 1960s/early 1970s Miles Davis albums are awash in Rhodes, played by Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul. The amp-less Stage Model (1970) could be used with any external amplifier, and was often paired with the Fender Twin (or Quad!) Reverb guitar amp.
The stereo recording of the Haverford show which has previously circulated was out of phase in passages; these issues have largely been rectified. Non-performance artifacts have been minimized and audience applause has been omitted. Someone with a bad cough punctuated a number of passages; we have gone to meticulous lengths to suppress his intrusive hacking.
There's an interesting story behind this concert, which also featured vibraphonist Walt Dickerson, an old friend of Ra and occasional collaborator. We'll let one of the concert's producers, Bill Lupoletti, explain.

Irwin Chusid
Administrator for Sun Ra LLC

The concert was part of the first weekend of events organized by the Alternative Concert Series (ACS), a Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges organization that debuted in 1980. Like most non-academic things at Haverford, it was run entirely by students, with funding from the college's student activities fees. During my last two years as a student at Haverford, ACS produced concerts by Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Philip Glass Ensemble, Old and New Dreams, Frederic Rzewski, the George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet, Oliver Lake's Jump Up, and others.
Our opening weekend featured solo performances in Haverford's Roberts Hall by Anthony Braxton (saxophones) and Leroy Jenkins (violin) on Friday, January 24, followed the next night by what was scheduled to be a duo performance of Walt Dickerson and Sun Ra. This was really Dickerson's gig — we arranged it through his booking agency, and it was Walt's idea to perform with Ra, as they had recorded an album of duets, Visions, in 1978, and Walt had used Ra as a sideman for his 1965 session Impressions of a Patch of Blue. They both lived in the Philadelphia area, so this was an easy date for them. They weren't on tour together; it was a one-off.
About two weeks before the concert, we received notice from the booking agency that Sun Ra had cancelled, and Walt was replacing him with bassist Jymie Merritt (another Philadelphian), so it was still a duet. We were bummed, but (as we would learn over and over) shit happens in the concert business. The upside was that we didn't need a piano for the gig (this would become a crucial detail), so we didn't have to pay a tuner and movers, saving us money that we could apply to our next event.
The morning of the show, I awoke to a phone call that Merritt's father had died, so Jymie had to cancel. That meant it would now be a Dickerson solo gig. Kind of an anti-climax after the spectacular Braxton/Jenkins fireworks the previous night.
Before showtime, I was backstage with Walt, waiting for the crowd in Roberts Hall to file in, when one of my colleagues rushed over and breathlessly announced that Sun Ra was at the door. I asked one of my most insightful questions ever: "Are you sure it's Sun Ra?" Why I was concerned about a fake Sun Ra defies logic! I was told: "Well, he's wearing a blue dashiki and a leather aviator cap." That could only be one person.
Walt and Sonny (as Walt called him) greeted each other affectionately. After the exchange of pleasantries, they started talking about the unplanned performance ahead, and Sonny asked if he could see our piano. I explained that since we weren't expecting him, we had no piano, but that we'd find him an instrument — somehow.
Word went out to the college community: Who has a portable keyboard we could borrow for the night? A Haverford student named Tim James, who lived next door in Barclay Hall, volunteered the use of his Fender Rhodes. It was no substitute for the Bosendorfer concert grand (recently donated by a Haverford alum) that we would have had ready, but it was better than nothing. Ra, of course, could play anything.
Walt opened with a solo set while we resolved the keyboard situation. During the break, we set up and miked the Rhodes, and Ra came onstage to the great surprise of most of the audience (except those who'd been involved with the piano caper). After his set and a second intermission, Walt and Sonny played a brief duet, despite the fact that they hadn't rehearsed and that the Rhodes and the vibraphone sound similar.
The audience was relatively small but attentive and appreciative. In addition to students, faculty and staff, we had a decent contingent from the Philadelphia jazz community, as we had advertised our shows off-campus.
We later learned that the Sun Ra Arkestra had gotten a gig for the same night which paid more than ours, which was why Ra originally cancelled on us. When he heard about Merritt's dad, out of sympathy for Jymie and Walt he came to take the stage at Haverford. The Arkestra didn't play until very late that evening, so it was a two-venue night for Ra. In the final analysis, he did us a solid.
Bill Lupoletti
Assistant Music Director for World Music Host, Global A Go-Go
WRIR 97.3 FM Richmond Independent Radio

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