Sun Ra and his Arkestra
Sun Ra and his Solar Orchestra
Sun Ra (1914-93) had unquestionably one of the longest creative careers in jazz, establishing a visionary band in the mid '50s that would absorb and transform other musical elements for decades, always maintaining its own identitypart science fiction, part vaudeville, part mystery cultall of it subsumed in the effervescent joy and infernal power of a music that spanned big-band swing and conducted improvisation. While Sun Ra has passed on, the vision persists, with veteran saxophonist Marshall Allen undertaking new projects for the band as well as maintaining some of the core repertoire. The original Ra genius, though, is much in evidence in the recent bevy of reissues and archival discoveries.
Though it's freshly reissued, New Horizons repackages some of the best-known Sun Ra material with some that's less familiar, all of it from 1956 and all of it from the band's long Chicago incubation. The ten tracks of Sun Song, Ra's first commercial recording, are combined with selections from LPs on his own Saturn label. It's essential work, immediately demonstrating Ra's strong connections to swing (Fletcher Henderson, in particular, with whom he'd worked as a young man) while extending the harmonic innovations of bop in a manner that's similar to George Russell's Lydian chromatic techniques of mixing modes. There's already a polyrhythmic inventiveness at the core of Ra's arrangements and he had begun to assemble some of the distinctive voices that would contribute to his band's identity, including tenor saxophonist John Gilmore and baritone saxophonist Pat Patrick. The crisply boppish trumpet of Art Hoyle is another important element.
Eight years later the Ra ensemble had migrated from Chicago to New York (with an extended hiatus in Montreal) and found itself in the midst of the free jazz revolution. A portion of Featuring Pharoah Sanders & Black Harold has been previously issued, but this ESP release adds more than 45 minutes of music, as well as establishing the actual date of the performance as December 31, 1964. The concert includes a couple of familiar Ra anthems"The Second Stop Is Jupiter" and "Rocket Number 9"but it's most notable for the stunning integration of some of Ra's regular collaborators with younger emerging musicians, with the brilliant young Pharoah Sanders replacing John Gilmore, Black Harold (Harold Murray) adding his voice-augmented flute and bassist Alan Silva and drummer Clifford Jarvis supplementing the rhythm section. It adds a special creative density to the band and results in even more extended percussion music than was usual in a Ra concert. It's essential hearing for anyone with an interest in Ra's music.
The sound quality on Live at the Electric Circus/Newport Jazz Festival suggests the performances were recorded by a band or audience member on home equipment. Some tracks are untitled and the sometimes speculative personnel listings lack instrument identifications. However, the late '60s was an important period for the band: the New York milieu of experimentation tended to press the band's expressionist creativity while downplaying some of the theatrical elements. The 11 short tracks from the 1969 Newport concert are clipped and fragmentary, but it's a rare performance by the Arkestra in the heart of the jazz establishment, with some unbridled wailing by John Gilmore and Marshall Allen, spacey keyboard by Sun Ra and dense African-inspired percussion on "Watusa," as well as a few vocals like "Enlightenment". Let loose in the psychedelic ambience of the Electric Circus, the band responds with a more satisfying performance, including a 25-minute collective improvisation with some fine trombone work (likely Bernard Pettaway) and a reed blowout on "Calling Planet Earth" that's a musical highlight. It's worth seeking out, despite the sound.
Live in Cleveland, released for the first time, documents a 1975 concert by the band when it was functioning at an extraordinarily high level, whether doing vocal set pieces or extended jams. The opening "Astro Nation" is a long vocal jam over some fine funk electric bass by Dale Williams and congas, suggesting that the Arkestra could have been a great band without their instruments. Sun Ra is in great form, delivering an extended poem-sermon-vision on the medley of "Friendly Galaxy 3/ I am the Brother of the Wind/ I Pharoah," then topping it off with an extended synthesizer solo that stretches one's expectations of his sonic parameters, pressing the music to match his exploratory politics. A free jam segues back to Earth with Ra at the piano providing a fractured and filigreed introduction to Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady". It's a fitting choice since Sun Ra had assembled a saxophone section that advanced the sheer sound of the Ellington edition through swing to free improvisation. Here the perennially underrated Gilmoreat one point he even influenced John Coltraneturns in a brief solo of genuine harmonic originality.
In the late '70s, Ra continued to press into new territory, making his music even more pluralistic and hypnotic by adding disco beats and contemporary R&B textures without in any way compromising its ultimate integrity. On Jupiter reissues a very brief (29 minutes) LP from 1979 that demonstrates the changes, including electric guitars and Martin Denny-like sound effects for the shimmering ambience of the brief title track, then digging into the pop mainstream for "UFO," with glittering studio effects (reverb, compression, treble boost, panning from track to track) adding to the Arkestra's resemblance to a weirdly expanded version of Parliament/Funkadelic, an instance of reciprocal influence. The extended "Seductive Fantasy" returns the group to the more customaryif exoticground of acoustic space jazz. Marshall Allen's eerie oboe and the drummers create an interesting mix of forward and background movement to match the dissonant theme and the generally lush, relaxed quality of the band, at home in a musical terrain that's increasingly meaningful, whether alien or familiar.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Brainville; Call For All Demons; Transition; Possession; Street Named Hell; Lullaby For Realville; Future; Swing a Little Taste; New Horizons; Fall Off The Log; Sun Song; Reflections in Blue; Two Tones; El Viktor; Saturn; Kingdom Of Not; Blues at Midnight; Super Blonde; Sof Talk.
Personnel: Dave Young, Art Hoyle: trumpets; Julian Priester: trombone; James Scales: alto saxophone; John Gilmore: tenor saxophone; Pat Patrick:baritone and alto saxophones; Charles Davis: baritone saxophone; Sun Ra: piano, organ; Richard Evans: bass; Victor Sproles: bass; Wilbur Green: electric bass; Bob Barry, William Cochran: drums; Jim Herndon: tympani, percussion.
Featuring Pharoah Sanders and Black Harold
Tracks: Cosmic Interpretation; The Other World; The Second Star is Jupiter; The Now Tomorrow; Discipline 9; Gods on a Safari; The World Shadow; Rocket Number 9; The Voice of Pan; Dawn Over Israel; Space Mates.
Personnel: Sun Ra: keyboards; Art Jenkins: space vocals; Pharoah Sanders: tenor; Black Harold: flute & percussion; Marshall Allen: alto saxophone; Danny Davis: alto saxophone; Pat Patrick: baritone saxophone; Chris Capers: trumpet; Al Evans: trumpet, flugelhorn; Teddy Nance: trombone; Bernard Pettaway: bass trombone; Robert Cummings: bass clarinet; Alan Silva: bass; Clifford Jarvis: drums.
Live at the Electric Circus/Newport Jazz Festival
Tracks: Disc 1: untitled; untitled; The Shadow World; Prepare for the Journey to Other Worlds; Velvet; Outer Space (is a Pleasant Place); unidentified processional; Watusa; Enlightenment; Somebody Else's Idea; Sun Ra and his Band from Outer Space; Lights on a Satellite; untitled; Friendly Galaxy; The Satellites are Spinning. Disc 2: untitled improv; Calling Planet Earth; Somebody Else's Idea; Spontaneous Simplicity; Space Aura.
Personnel: Disc 1 Tracks 1-15: Sun Ra, Kwame Hadi, Akh Tal Ebah, Marshall Allen, Danny Davis, John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, Danny Ray Thompson, James Jacson, Robert Cummings, Alex Blake, Nimrod Hunt, William Brister, Lex Humphries, Clifford Jarvis, June Tyson. Disc 1 Tracks 12-15 and Disc 2: Sun Ra, possibly Al Evans, Jothan Collins, Ali Hassan, Bernard Pettaway, Robert Northern, Marshall Allen, Danny Davis, John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, Danny Ray Thompson, James Jacson, Robert Cummings, Alan Silva, Ronnie Boykins, Clifford Jarvis and others.
Live in Cleveland
Tracks: Astro Nation (Of The United World In Outer Space); Enlightenment; Love in Outer Space; Theme of the Stargazers/ The Satellites Are Spinning; Friendly Galaxy 2/ I Am The Brother Of The Wind/ I, Pharoah; Synthesizer Solo; Sophisticated Lady.
Personnel: Sun Ra: vocals, piano, organ, Moog synthesizer, hand claps, percussion; Eloe Omoe: vocals, flute, bass clarinet, hand claps, percussion; James Jacson: vocals, flute, bassoon, drum, hand claps, percussion; Danny Davis , Marshall Allen: vocals, flute, alto saxophone, hand claps, percussion; Danny Thompson: vocals, flute, baritone saxophone, hand claps, percussion; John Gilmore: vocals, tenor saxophone, hand claps, percussion; Kwame Hadi, Akh Tal Ebah: vocals, trumpet, hand claps, percussion; Damon Choice:vocals, vibraphone, hand claps, percussion; Dale Williams: vocals, electric bass, hand claps, percussion; Atakatune, Odun: vocals, conga drum, hand claps, percussion; June Tyson, Eddie Thomas:vocals, hand claps, percussion, dancer.
Tracks: On Jupiter; UFO; Seductive Fantasy.
Personnel: Sun Ra: piano, electric piano, organ, vocals: John Gilmore: tenor saxophone, percussion, vocals; Marshall Allen: alto saxophone, flute, oboe; Danny Thompson: baritone saxophone, flute, percussion; Julian Pressley: baritone saxophone; Michael Ray: trumpet, vocals; June Tyson: vocals; Eloe Omoe: bass clarinet; Eddie Gale: trumpet; Richard Williams: bass; Samarai Celestial, Reg McDonald:drums; Atakatune: percussion; Skeeter McFarland, Taylor Richardson: electric guitar; Steve Clarke: electric bass; James Jacson: bassoon, flute, percussion, Ancient Egyptian Infinity Lightning Drum.