Sun Ra: Featuring Pharoah Sanders and Black Harold

John Sharpe By

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Sun Ra
Sun Ra: Featuring Pharoah Sanders and Black Harold

Any newly available, 1960s vintage Sun Ra would be cause for celebration, so ESP's unearthing of 45 minutes of well-recorded stereo is wonderful indeed. Five new pieces supplement the six tracks which made up the previously issued version of this title on the keyboard player and bandleader's own Saturn label. Often disputed, the provenance of the original release, which didn't appear until 1976, has been established as part of the short-lived Jazz Composers' Guild's "Four Days in December" concerts, recorded on New Year's Eve 1964.

This session shortly preceded the masterworks of Heliocentric Worlds 1 and 2 (ESP, 1965) and the Magic City (Saturn, 1965), and though not quite matching that high standard, offers valuable illumination of the Arkestra at a formative time. For one thing it's the only opportunity to hear reed iconoclast Pharoah Sanders' explosive squawk with the Arkestra, taking the place of the absent John Gilmore, away touring with drummer and bandleader Art Blakey. By recompense, Sanders' squealing tenor saxophone bursts out of the ensembles for exciting but brief passages on "The World Shadow" and "Rocket Number 9," proving a more than adequate deputy. It's also the only time the titular Black Harold (also known as Atu Harold Murray among multiple aliases, and last heard on percussion on Kahil El'Zabar's Papa's Bounce (CIMP, 1998)) recorded with Ra, making the most of his opportunity with a vocalized flute showcase, echoing some of Rahsaan Roland Kirk's innovations, on "The Voice of Pan".

Though demarcated into 11 tracks, the music breaks down into three continuous suite-like segments, connecting an intoxicating blend of space chants ("The Second Stop is Jupiter" and "Rocket Number 9"), conducted improvisations, ensemble arrangements and cacophonic sound clusters from the Arkestra. Incidentally, "The World Shadow" is the first known version of Ra classic "The Shadow World," though the band navigates its infamously tricky theme more loosely and minus the saxophone melody and counter melody of later versions.

Of the previously unreleased music, "Cosmic Interpretations" is a short prelude for Ra's barrelling piano, percussive tinkling, and arco bass, while "The Other World" is an almost 20 minute curate's egg of roller coaster conduction featuring cathartic horn outbursts with more Sanders, and a searching solo passage for Pat Patrick's baritone saxophone, wrapped around a 10 minute interlude of unremarkable drums and percussion. "The Now Tomorrow" starts with bucolic piano and flutes, before giving way to wavering and scraping arco bass accompanied by what sounds like an uncredited nasal double reed instrument, but could be Art Jenkins' space voice. Some expertly pummelled piano takes over before a calming return to the opening gambit for flute and horns. The final piece is the standout. Titled "Discipline 9," it is largely a terrific, languid reading of "We Travel the Spaceways," though with a lovely, almost chamber ensemble opening which does resemble Ra's "Discipline" series, though allegedly he didn't begin writing them until 1971. No matter, the lush ensemble textures are a joy to the ear before the infectious rolling rhythm and vocal chant emerge.

It wouldn't be Sun Ra if there wasn't still some mystery pertaining to the release. Though the personnel listed on the sleeve was assembled from contemporary reviews (likely based on printed handouts), it differs from that given in The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (Cadence Jazz Books, 1999), which adds a trombone, trumpet and French horn, along with Robert Northern's bass clarinet (clearly audible on "Dawn Over Israel"), but subtracts Ronnie Boykins' bass and Jimmhi Johnson's drums. Stereo sound on the unreleased tracks is better than the mono of the previously released cuts, which sound as if they were lifted from vinyl, with a few faint pops and clicks still audible and some distortion on "Dawn Over Israel". Minor gripes notwithstanding, this is a seminal historic document and nothing short of essential for Sun Ra aficionados.

Tracks: Cosmic Interpretations; The Other World; The Second Stop 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: piano, celeste; Pharoah Sanders: tenor saxophone; Black Harold (Harold Murray): flute, log drum; Al Evans: trumpet; Teddy Nance: trombone; Marshall Allen: alto saxophone; Pat Patrick: baritone saxophone; Alan Silva: bass; Ronnie Boykins: bass; Clifford Jarvis: drums; Jimmhi Johnson: drums; Art Jenkins: space voice.

Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: ESP Disk | Style: Free Improv/Avant-Garde

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