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Sun Ra Quartet in Italy, 1978


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The poet T.S. Eliot said "Mankind cannot take too much reality." Some people feel the same about keyboard player, bandleader and composer Sun Ra. Approaching Ra's output, both concert and studio recordings, can be daunting even for the initiated. Because the music was originally released in haphazard fashion, and has gone in and out of print on often obscure labels, it may seem near impossible to keep track of, let alone wrap your mind around. Some believe the work is best taken in small increments, and helpful insight into what the master was up to can be found in a handful of quartet recordings from Ra's 1978 Italian tour.

The quartet gave two recorded concerts, and four times went into a Rome studio. Portions of this material have long been unavailable and have achieved myth-like status. The studio sessions, briefly released as the double LPs New Steps and Other Voices, Other Blues on the defunct Italian Horo label, are extremely rare. The concert work, released as Disco 3000, and Media Dreams, on Ra's Saturn label, has been, up until 2008-09, out of print and nearly impossible to find.

Because of the small group size, the unfettered playing of tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, and the dizzying heights Ra reached with his Moog synthesizer extravaganzas, this material is representative of a particularly creative period in a career spanning over four decades.

Sun Ra
Disco 3000
Art Yard
(1978) 2009

The single CD release Disco 3000 duplicates the original Saturn LP which Ra had distilled down to four tunes from a complete Milan concert. Its 26-minute title track, one of those suite-like, episodic melanges so customary with Ra, features a healthy portion of electronic keyboards. No one seems to have approached synthesizers the way Ra did. Clearly in his element here, his joy in exploring a new Crumar Mainman is evident. In contrast, during "Friendly Galaxy" the acoustic piano drops out early, giving over to a four-minute stretch of tenorist John Gilmore working out over Luqman Ali's drumming.

A two-disc set, Art Yard's original release of Disco 3000, still available as a digital download, contained the entire Milan concert. The full concert is a treasure for those who can't get enough of Gilmore—Ra's most consistent, loyal and enthralling improviser. Mostly straight-ahead blowing on hard bop-like pieces with Ra on acoustic piano, the additional tunes give Gilmore plenty of room to stretch out in his gruff, exploratory style, always viscerally grounded in the Chicago tenor school. No matter the context, Gilmore never seems to be at a loss for ideas.

Sun Ra
Media Dreams
Art Yard
(1978) 2008

The two-disc Media Dreams, from a second January concert, contains an additional seven tracks not released on the Saturn LP. Two standout, 13-minute plus, eye-opening tracks, "Media Dreams" and "Constellation," included on the original, exemplify Ra's focused and extravagant synthesizer technique. Both are among the highpoints of the Italian output, and at times sound like musique concrete.

With a pre-programmed, drum-machine backbeat, and an infectious riff similar to the pop hit "Surfin' Bird," "Constellation" could be mistaken for something Nino Rota might have come up with for Fellini-film party music—before it goes off into the spaceways. The stunning "Media Dreams" covers a lot of ground, containing some Messiaen-ish bird-like twitter and a gorgeous arpeggio-based theme evocative of Brian Eno's ambient music. Like other Ra works, this material never makes concessions to high polish nor slick packaging; tracks can begin in medias res and end just as abruptly.

Sun Ra
New Steps
Atomic Records
(1978) 2009

Atomic Records has released New Steps for the first time on CD. Ra was taken by an old upright in a corner of the studio and used it instead of a grand piano for much of this session. The upright's borderline tonality gives a particular character to the music. "My Favorite Things" features Gilmore, and the listener's first impulse may be to compare it to Coltrane's classic version. But they are different treatments and Ra's more conventional approach stands on its own terms. Michael Ray, a revelation throughout these recordings, here provides muted-trumpet obbligato. Ra seemed to be in a reflective mood during these sessions. Many of the tunes are medium to slow, and appear to have been created from the barest sketches.

Note: A spokesman for Horo states that the label, in fall 2009 in the process of being resurrected, will begin to release its entire remastered official catalogue beginning June 2010. Let's hope that Other Voices, Other Blues, superior in many ways to New Steps, will soon be reissued. For completists, two remaining Italian tracks, apparent fragments of the Rome studio outtakes, were released as one side of a Saturn LP, Sound Mirror, and have not been reissued.

It is a notable event that most of the Italian quartet material is now available on CD. Overall, this rocking inside/outside band is one of the highlights of Ra's large body of work, and while offering clues to his compositional and performance strategies, it also stands as a thoroughly enjoyable introduction for those who may be looking for a way into a vast catalogue of challenging music.

Tracks and Personnel

Disco 3000

Tracks: Disco 3000; Third Planet; Friendly Galaxy; Dance Of The Cosmo Aliens.

Personnel: Sun Ra: piano, organ, moog synth, rhythm machine, vocals; Michael Ray: trumpet, vocals; John Gilmore: tenor sax, drums, vocals; Luqman Ali: drums, vocals; June Tyson: vocals.

Media Dreams

Tracks: Saturn Research; Constellation; Year Of The Sun; Media Dreams; Twigs At Twilight; An Unbeknowneth Love; Friendly Galaxy; An Unbeknowneth Love; Of Other Tomorrows Never Known; Images; The Truth About Planet Earth; Space Is The Place; The Shadow World.

Personnel: Sun Ra: piano, electric piano, organ; Michael Ray: trumpet; John Gilmore: tenor sax; Luqman Ali: drums.

New Steps

Tracks: My Favorite Things; Moon People; Sun Steps; Exactly Like You; Friend and Friendship; Rome At Twilight; When There Is No Sun; The Horo.

Personnel: Sun Ra: piano, electric piano, organ; Michael Ray: trumpet; John Gilmore: tenor sax; Luqman Ali: drums.


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