In a world beset by economic crises, the continued existence of the Sun Ra Arkestra for over 55 years outside the mainstream is nothing short of miraculous and testament to the enduring vision, charisma and determination of the man from Saturn. Since Ra left the planet in 1993, surviving original member, reedman Marshall Allen, has maintained both his legacy and the Arkestra as a creative force. These two discs from opposite ends of the group's timeline give some idea of the (space)ways they have traveled.
Recorded in 1962, though not released until 1965, Secrets of the Sun now appears for the first time on CD, complete with a bonus track from the same period. At this point in their history, the Arkestra were in transition, moving physically from Chicago to New York, but musically from recognizably swinging big band charts to conducted improvisations. Even when the form is conventional, as on the martial "Friendly Galaxy" or the driving "Space Aura," the simultaneous soloing flutes on the former or the alternating tenor and baritone saxophone spots that ultimately coalesce on the latter, show a chafing at the bounds.
On other tracks they are more experimental. "Solar Symbols" emphasizes bells, gongs and percussion treated with heavy reverb, which hasn't weathered well. But on "Love In Outer Space" John Gilmore's bass clarinet remains genuinely disturbing as it slides between pitches in the upper register like no one before or since. The previously unreleased 17-minute "Journey to Mars" is most notable for the fragments from other sessions spliced into the opening, before a chugging rhythm and series of solos, with Ronnie Boykins' arco bass sawing being the best of the bunch. Probably essential for Saturnophiles, but the uninitiated should start elsewhere.
Fast forward 47 years and the Arkestra continues to go strong as evidenced by this document from the Paradox Club in the Netherlands, recorded at the end of a week-long residency. Their program draws from a book which spans the decades, mixing Ra originals like "Velvet" and "Dreams Come True" (with Knoel Scott crooning the lyrics), alongside some newly minted pieces by Allen that fit snugly into the Arkestral vernacular.
All told, this is a much more straightforward experience. Allen remains the most adventurous soloist. His distinctive eldritch alto saxophone shrieking features strongly on the infectious "Discipline 27-B," segueing into "I'll Wait For You." Reedmen Scott and Abdul Yahya Majid also give good accounts of themselves, though generally solo spots are brief. Fletcher Henderson staple "Hocus Pocus" is given an authentic Swing era rendition, complete with wah-wah trumpets and muscular tenor. Farid Baron essays some high-stepping piano on "Space Idol" playing with some aplomb considering the shoes he's filling. Still a vital force, the Arkestra's Live at the Paradox persuades whether as advert for performance or souvenir after the event.
Tracks and Personnel
Secrets Of The Sun
Tracks: Friendly Galaxy; Solar Differentials; Space Aura; Love In Outer Space; Reflects Motion; Solar Symbols; Flight To Mars.
Personnel: Sun Ra: piano, sun harp, gong; Al Evans: flugelhorn (1, 7); Marshall Allen: flute, alto saxophone, morrow, percussion (1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7); John Gilmore: bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, space bird sounds, percussion, voice; Pat Patrick: flute, baritone saxophone, spacedrums, bongo (1, 3, 4, 6, 7); Calvin Newborn: electric guitar (1, 7); Ronnie Boykins: bass; Tommy Hunter: drums, space bird sounds, reverb, percussion (1, 2, 5, 6); C. Scoby Stroman: drums (2, 3, 5, 7); Art Jenkins: space voice (2); Eddie Gale: trumpet (3); Jimmy Johnson: percussion (4);
Live At The Paradox
Tracks: Space Walk; Discipline 27-BI'll Wait For You; Dreams Come True; Velvet; You'll Find Me; Millenium; Take Off; Hocus Pocus; Space Idol.
Personnel: Marshall Allen: director, alto saxophone, EVI, flute, clarinet, vocals; Charles Davis: tenor saxophone; Knoel Scott: alto saxophone, vocals; Yahya Abdul Majid: tenor saxophone; Danny Thompson: baritone saxophone, flute, percussion; Rey Scott: baritone saxophone, flute; Fred Adams: trumpet; Cecil Brooks: trumpet; Dave Davis: trombone, tuba; Farid Barron: piano, organ; Dave Hotep: guitar; Juini Booth: bass; Wayne A. Smith Jr.: drums; Elson Nascimento: surdo.