Big bands have had a long history serving as spawning grounds for smaller jazz collectives. Leaders such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie encouraged their players to form into compact groups outside the needs of the larger bands. Curiously, unlike the rosters of other big bands such as the Ellington and Basie Orchestras, the Sun Ra Arkestra’s register rarely parsed down into smaller working combos, except when finances mandated that the entire band be reduced in size. There were rare occasions when members took gigs with other groups to pay the bills (John Gilmore’s short stints with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and Pat Patrick’s stay with Mongo Santamaria spring immediately to mind). But more often than not the rigorous and alluring demands of Ra’s ingenious arrangements coupled with erratically organized rehearsals precluded most band members’ cultivation of outside interests. With Ra’s passing the obligations and opportunities of touring decreased, lessening the time constraints of many of the players and necessitating the formation of smaller groups. This disc features four veteran tone scientists playing in homage to both Ra and to their own equally cosmic musical sensibilities. The denouement is a fascinating glimpse at what smaller Arkestra combos might have sounded like if they had been afforded the opportunity to record in earlier years.
Allen’s “Angels and Demons at Play” unravels across a deceptively simple bass/drums vamp. Whereas the original version of the piece (included on Ra’s album of the same name) was an illustration in brevity the reading here stretches out for nearly fourteen minutes. The extra space allows for plenty of stirring interplay between Hill and Allen and communicates a feeling of unencumbered exploration. Celestial’s “Galactic Dance” works off a similar rhythmic vamp supplied by Oettel’s spatulate string plucks, but is more subdued in sound until an unexpectedly roaring finish. Allen and Celestial sit out on “My One & Only Love” leaving Oettel and a plungered Hill to converse in an earthy bass register vernacular. “Journey to Birmingham” is a musical account of Hill’s visit to Ra’s grave site and is filled with extraterrestrial tonalities thanks to Allen’s flute and an undulating underpinning of bowed bass and cymbals. Allen also has an opportunity on this piece to work up a squealing sirocco of sound on his alto. The quartet’s interpretation of the Ra classic “Interstellar Lowways” is beautifully rendered in a wave of melancholic tone colors and Allen’s solo is particularly engrossing in it’s juggling of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ elements. Hill also solos at length and turns one of his finest improvisations of the session on this piece. “Lush Life” serves as an amazing chance to hear these four deconstruct a standard. Each of them seem to recognize and build upon the core elements that make the tune so memorable to begin with. Allen’s opening solo section sets the stage and the ensemble soon enters to follow in a similar suit. Considering the scarcity of sessions like this one anyone with an interest in the Arkestra and its members owes it to him or herself to seek this disc out. In doing so it’s possible to discover not only what might have been, but what will most certainly be as group’s like this one continue to record.
Angels & Demons At Play/ Galactic Dance/ My One & Only Love/ Journey to Birmingham/ Interstellar Lowways/ Your Guess Is As Good As Mine/ Lush Life/ Discipline 27.
June 30 & July 1, 1997, The Spirit Room, Rossie, NY.
CIMP recordings are available directly from North Country Distributors (http://www.cadencebuilding.com)
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