Historical document or musical revelation? Music from Tomorrow’s World, the latest release in Atavistic’s Unheard Music Series, again poses this seemingly eternal, yet pertinent, question. Should live recordings be made available to the listening public, even if the sound quality distorts and obscures the musical content? Many would say no, but in the case of Sun Ra the parameters of the debate change, and for this album the musical content comes across as vivid and excitingwith a little patient listening, of course.
This album catches Ra and his Arkestra live in 1960 during their Chicago tenure. The tunes are grouped into two different sessions. The first session was taken from Ra’s stay at the Wonder Inn, while the second is from an unknown venue called here “Majestic Hall”.
The Wonder Inn cuts capture the Arkestra in transition, and consequently displays many facets of their musical personality. They play three Ra originals and four standards, two of which feature vocals by Ricky Murray. On “Angels and Demons at Play” and “Spontaneous Simplicity” one can almost hear the Arkestra mutating from progressive big band to the bustling, percussion-heavy unit they would evolve into later in the 60s. Both pieces feature Ronnie Boykin’s percussive bass pulses and an exotic variety of percussion textures. Almost more exciting, we get to hear tenor saxophonist John Gilmore stretch out over the funky swing of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and the bop harmony of “How High the Moon”.
The Majestic Hall sessions contain more distortion than atmosphere, but through the hiss one can still discern Ra’s lush, swinging arrangements and the Arkestra’s deft, disciplined playing. This session contains four unidentified pieces, dubbed here “Majestic 1-4”. “Majestic 1”, a ballad penned by the under-recognized trumpeter Hobart Dotson, drifts along on lost melancholy. Baritone saxophonist Ronald Wilson phrases a gentle, loving solo off the melody. “Majestic 2” shows the flipside of the Arkestra as they burn their way through an energetic, jumping chart. Gilmore shines again, and Wilson reels off a ripping baritone-sax solo. These tracks show that the Arkestra was not only an important innovator, but simply put, one of the most vital big bands jazz has seen.
Music from Tomorrow’s World definitely works as both historical document and musical revelation. The atmosphere of the Wonder Inn clearly manifests itself-cash registers ring, conversations continue and the crowd exhorts the Arkestra forward-but instead of detracting from the music, it adds to the feeling that we are getting a picture from another time, the essence of a forgotten moment recaptured from the past in an audio postcard. And as for the distortion on the Majestic Hall tracks, the previously unheard compositions overcome any technical qualms. Besides, Ra was known for his bizarre production aesthetic, which accepted random background noise and distorted tones. For these reasons, Ra himself probably would have approved of this album. By releasing these recordings, Atavistic has done a great service to both history and music.
Personnel: John Gilmore: Sax (Tenor); Marshall Allen: Flute, Sax (Alto);
Ronnie Boykins: Bass; Robert Barry: Drums; Phil Cohran: Cornet;
Gene Easton: Sax (Alto); Jon Hardy: Drums; George Hudson: Trumpet;
Ricky Murray: Vocals; Sun Ra: Percussion, Piano, Piano (Electric);
Ronald Wilson: Sax (Baritone)