Sun Ra in the '70s: Disco and Some Blues

Clifford Allen By

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Sun Ra
Disco 3000: The Complete Milan Concert
Art Yard

Sun Ra
Some Blues But Not the Kind That's Blue

The free innovations of the '60s brought Sun Ra to New York and into contact with composer/ improvisers like Bill Dixon, Alan Silva and Michael Mantler, a scene that benefited from Ra's influence even before he arrived. But his relocation to Philadelphia in the early '70s coincided with a more unified approach to composition and, ultimately, the very direction of the Arkestra. Ra's group was distilled into a quirky quartet for a trip to Milan in 1978 and he also cut a number of solo sides during the decade. From standards and popular tunes to Ra's own originals and the occasional large-group improvisation (not to mention an expanded electronic palette), this decade of music from Sun Ra and his Solar-Myth Arkestra was some of the most diverse of his and his compatriots' careers.

Disco 3000 was waxed in concert on an Italian sojourn, with the Arkestra pared down to a core unit of tenor man John Gilmore, trumpeter Michael Ray and drummer Luqman Ali. This ensemble also cut a noteworthy pair of LPs for the Horo label during the visit, but the Saturn recordings compiled on this two-disc expanded set remain the most elusive and artistically interesting of the tour. In addition to his usual piano/organ combo, Ra is heard here on Moog and Crumar Mainman synthesizer and drum machine.

The fact that the Arkestra, especially during Ra's final years on Earth, was billed (and sometimes written off) as a bop repertory band long past its initial sphere of influence paints an incomplete picture of the group's evolution, especially upon hearing the colliding worlds at play here. Gilmore and Ray present a frontline worthy of a star-studded Blue Note, Prestige or Muse hard bop session (see "Third Planet and "Images on disc two), but there's a pull between the pair and Ra's chunky, dissonant Moog and organ backing. It's also a pleasure to hear him just on the straight side of Hasaan where the acoustic piano is his axe of choice — rarely do the full-band sides give such unfettered examples of Ra's playing. Ali is often chomping at the bit; his frantic and sinewy solos usually get 'treated' by either the drum machine or phased organ, depending on the leader's whims. Playfully undermining the soloists, it is tension within the small group that makes Disco 3000 a compelling set, providing a clear visibility of the range and subtlety of Ra's music — the "Night in Tunisia bass line creeping into organ madness on "When There Is No Sun grounding these arrangements in history, as free as the improvisations get.

Some Blues But Not The Kind That's Blue has always been one of the most elusive Arkestra titles; the latest reissue from Atavistic is taken from the master tapes and includes two rare small-group tracks. Most of the usual suspects — Gilmore, Marshall Allen, James Jacson, Elmo Omoe, Ali, bassist Richard Williams — are here and this edition of the Arkestra adds the fine trumpeter Akh Tal Ebah and conguero Atakatune to the lineup.

Beginning with an electric organ, bassoon, bass, bass clarinet and alto rumble that wouldn't sound out of place on one of the Heliocentric Worlds ESP sessions from 1965, the rhythm section settles into an easy lope as Danni Davis' alto digs into the title track's meat. Skating out from under a greasy riff, Allen and Ebah dart and dance in tandem before Ra's coloristic blocks and a clatter from traps, conga and hand claps bring the tune home. Other than the first piece (a Ra composition) and an untitled group improvisation, the set features a number of standards including Gilmore's searing take on "My Favorite Things and three very different versions of "I'll Get By . "Favorite Things has its Bedouin theme and the familiar two-bass vamp yanked and replaced with a slow- and-steady tenor fire, supported by a tense and sketchy percussive backdrop. Not only proof positive (as if we need any) that Gilmore was one of the great modern tenor players, the empathy present between he and Ra is astounding and carries a spacious strength far different from that of Coltrane and Tyner.

From the dusty and bent corners of "Nature Boy to the barrelhouse and the collective beyond, Some Blues provides one of the most varied programs in the Arkestra canon. Together, these discs present the '70s as one of the most crucial decades in the group's history.

Tracks and Personnel

Disco 3000: The Complete Milan Concert

Tracks: Disc One: Disco 3000; Sun of the Cosmos; Echoes of the World; Geminiology; Sky Blues; Friendly Galaxy. Disc Two: Third Planet/Friendly Galaxy; Dance of the Cosmo Aliens; Spontaneous Simplicity; Images/Over the Rainbow; When There Is No Sun; We Travel the Spaceways.

Personnel: Sun Ra: piano, Moog, Crumar Mainman, vocal; John Gilmore: tenor saxophone, percussion and vocal; Michael Ray: trumpet and vocal; Luqman Ali: drums and vocal.

Some Blues But Not the Kind That's Blue

Tracks: Some Blues But Not the Kind That's Blue; I'll Get By; My Favorite Things; Untitled; Nature Boy; Tenderly; Black Magic; I'll Get By (Take 1); I'll Get By (Take 2).

Personnel: Sun Ra: piano and organ; John Gilmore: tenor saxophone; Marshall Allen and Danni Davis: alto saxophone and flute; Eloe Omoe: bass clarinet; James Jacson: bassoon and flute; Akh Tal Ebah: trumpet and flugelhorn; Luqman Ali: drums; Atakatune: conga; Richard Williams: bass; Ronnie Boykins: bass.


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