Sun Ra: We Travel the Spaceways/Bad and Beautiful (1992)
This Evidence re-issue package, like a large portion of the others, captures different aspects of the late '50s/early '60s Arkestra in transition. The first seven tracks comprise We Travel the Spaceways, recorded in Chicago between 1956 and 1960 at a variety of sessions. The second group of seven tunes were originally released as Bad and Beautiful, and is believed to have been recorded in New York sometime in 1961. Both albums sound relatively tame compared to the Arkestra’s later explorations, but they also point to important aspects of what was to come. The latter has some germinations of the Arkestra’s developing loose, percussion-based sound while the former begins to develop Ra’s use of the chant.
We Travel the Spaceways features the Arkestra playing all original Ra compositions, including gems like “Velvet” and the space ballad “Tapestry from an Asteroid”, both of which appear in different forms on other Arkestra recordings from the 50s. But the real musical interest of this album comes from the Arkestra’s use of chants, both vocal and musical.
“Interplanetary Music” builds on a jaunty, somewhat deranged rhythm figure made from a staccato bowed bass riff and a squeaky violin melody. Add ringing bells and the Arkestra’s monotone, almost dirge-like chanting and you have the first version of the space chant-a device Ra would return to again and again in his later stage shows. “We Travel the Spaceways” would later become the Arkestra’s theme song, but it appears here for the first time as a subdued and distant statement of almost intergalactic melancholy. It is made even stranger by the audible quacking of what sounds like a toy duck somewhere in the studio.
On “Eve” and “space Loneliness” Ra uses the chant-form in a purely musical way. He achieves a balance between a leaden swing and ominous vamps by mutating static, minor blues riffs into longer ensemble lines, then back again. Behind the ensemble Boykins lays down cyclic bass lines that slide effortlessly into the swinging passages.
John Szwed, Ra’s biographer, posits that the small sextet Ra used on Bad and Beautiful came about because many of the Arkestra members did not want to make the transition to New York. Still, the musicians heard are some of the best Ra ever had. Furthermore, the small group setting allows the Arkestra to loosen up, both rhythmically and melodically.
Behind Patrick’s baritone-sax solo on “Ankh” (another early Ra standard, found in lusher form on Sound of Joy ), Ra comps darkly while bassist Boykins and drummer Tommy Hunter create a flexible, swinging beat. Boykins cuts a hard, percussive solo out of the bluesy song form, hinting at the new direction being forged. With “Exotic Two”, these dark, percussive edges get even sharper, as Ra slices his chords into terse, dissonant fragments, the Arkestra unleashes a percussive firestorm with cymbals and congas and Boykins anchors it all with an aggressive bass figure that is more pulse than beat.
The music on this two-fer sounds decidedly dark, rough-edged and eerie, characteristics that this disc’s lo-fi recording distortions only heighten. More strange and sultry late-night-reverie music from Ra and his band of fellow travellers.
Track Listing: 1. Interplanetary Music 2.Eve 3.We Travel the Spaceways 4.Tapestry From an Asteroid 5.Space Loneliness 6.New Horizons 7.Velvet 8.Bad and the Beautiful 9.Ankh 10.Just in Time 11.Search Light Blues 12.Exotic Two 13.On the Blue Side 14.And This Is My Beloved
Personnel: John Gilmore: Percussion,tenor sax,Bells; Julian Priester: Trombone; James Spaulding: alto sax; Marshall Allen: Flute, Percussion, alto sax; Ronnie Boykins: Bass; Robert Barry: Percussion, Drums; Phil Cohran: Percussion,Trumpet, Harp; Wilburn Green: electric bass; Arthur Hoyle: Trumpet; Thomas "Bugs" Hunter: Drums; Pat Patrick: percussion,baritone sax; Nate Pryor: Trombone; Sun Ra: Organ, Piano; James Scales: alto sax; Edward Skinner: Percussion; Walter Strickland: Trumpet; Tommy Hunter: Drums