If you try to track the development of Sun Ra's music on record, you will inevitably run up against numerous difficulties. Both chronologically and stylistically, his oeuvre contains anachronisms, false trails, mistakes and just plain weirdness. Evidence's re-issue package of the two Saturn albums, Angels and Demons at Play/The Nubians of Plutonia represents exactly these problems. Luckily, the detailed liner notes shed light on the confusing chronology while simultaneously informing listeners that what we are hearing is a band in the process of transforming itself. However, after a few listens to this release's strange melting pot of music, the latter observation becomes clear on its own.
But to merely say that the Arkestra was 'in transition' belies the fact that all of Ra's creative phases generate interest on their own merits. When the music sounds as focused and disciplined as Ra's usually does, it becomes difficult to label it merely 'experimental' or 'transitional.' Listen, for example, to "Between Two Worlds and you will hear the Arkestra playing in a concise, understated style that sounds confident and fully developed. Elements, however, of their future style do present themselves: the interlocking pulse of percussion and bass, the prevalent use of Boykins' arco bass, and the integration of melody instruments into the rhythm. Here the title of the tune means not transition from one place to another, but depicts a place in and of itself.
In a way, almost any Ra composition contains a piece of past, present and future. "Music from the World Tomorrow and "Angels and Demons at Play predict the Arkestra's deeper ventures into sound textures, with Phil Cohran's zither forecasting albums like Strange Strings. Even the earliest recorded pieces on the album, which ostensibly resemble more traditional big band tunes (big and brassy charts, walking bass), offer tastes of Ra's tomorrow. They show Ra beginning to utilize, however modestly, electronic keyboards, soon to become an integral part of his musical palette; in addition, Wilbur Green plays only electric bass, an instrument not used in jazz in 1956.
The Nubians of Plutonia sides, coming chronologically between the other two groups of tunes, evidence an Arkestra moving into ever looser, more abstract ground. The percussion becomes more varied and moves ever closer to the foreground. "The Golden Lady seduces with a swaying groove created by a combination of simple parts: hi-hat, cow bell, wood blocks, rolling floor toms and bass. Ra then sets up a dark melodic theme, and then the Arkestra proceeds to weave a series of jaunty, blues-tinged solos into the fabric of the groove.
"Nubia , "Africa and "Aiethopia continue this excursion into more mystical, rhythm-based territory. The Arkestra utilizes the same ominous, simmering percussion beds, now augmented by more exotic instruments like Pat Patrick's 'space lute,' which gives a playfully sinister sound to "Africa .
This two-album package presents a stunning cross-section of the Arkestra's ever-developing style, and highlights the strengths of Evidence's Ra re-issue series. You can hear the Arkestra being dark and mysterious at times, or playful and humorous at others. This powerful, multi-faceted music is a great place to start if you are just beginning to travel with Sun Ra, or a great way to continue the journey.
Personnel: Sun Ra: piano,organ,electric piano,bells; John Gilmore: tenor sax,
clarinet,bells,percussion; Marshall Allen: alto sax,flute,percussion; Pat
Patrick: baritone sax,space lute,percussion; Phil Cohran: trumpet,zither;Art
Hoyle: trumpet; Lucious Randolph: trumpet; Bill Fiedler: trumpet; Nate
Pryor: trombone; Julian Priester: trombone; Bo Bailey: trombone; Charles
Davis: baritone sax; James Spaulding: alto sax; Ronnie Boykins: bass;
Wilbur Green: electric bass; Robert Barry: drums; Jon Hardy: drums; Jim