March 28, 2008

Now Playing: Sun Ra

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Some Blues But Not the Kind That’s Blue (Atavistic UMS 265)
Recorded 10/14/77
Reissue of Saturn LP 101477 (1978)
Atavistic deserves our unending gratitude for continuing to make available to us poor, stranded Earthlings more delightful batches of rare Sun Ra obscurities via John Corbett’s “Unheard Music Series.” Hot on the heels of last year’s reissue of Strange Strings and Night of the Purple Moon (both of which are essential), comes Some Blues But Not the Kind That’s Blue. Ostensibly a set of “standards” (with a couple of Ra originals thrown in), these renditions are so abstracted and downright weird that it’s clear only Sun Ra could have conceived of these hoary old chestnuts in quite this way. For example, “My Favorite Things” manages to escape an easy comparison to John Coltrane’s iconic take by relaxing the rhythm, spicing it with Latin-ish percussion, and spacing out the harmonies. “Nature Boy” unfolds as a brooding, rhapsodic vehicle for piano and woodwinds that barely hints at the overly-familiar melody. What’s amazing is that, no matter how “straight-ahead” this music might appear on the surface, it’s always still a little bit “out” – and that’s one of the interesting things about Sun Ra’s music. As weird as it sometimes gets, it’s never too far removed from the blues and jazz syntax.

Another thing that fascinates me about Sun Ra’s Saturn LPs (which were, for the most part, hand-made artifacts) is that, despite - maybe even because of - the poor sound quality, the records are deeply affecting. I find this fascinating because I consider myself, if not an audiophile (because I am not wealthy), at least someone who cares a lot about sound quality. When I encounter poor fidelity, I’m not likely to keep listening unless there is some very compelling reason. Life is too short for bad sound! But with Sun Ra, it’s different; the off-kilter soundstages often result in delightfully fortuitous sonic effects and the overall atmosphere is intensely intimate, surreptitious (almost voyeuristic) and downright magical, like capturing lightning in a bottle. (It also occurs to me that this same phenomenon occurs with Robert Pollard’s lo-fi recordings, which effectively evoke the long-lost era of “classic rock” and Beatles bootlegs, but that is another subject altogether.)

It’s not that Some Blues… sounds bad; it just has that “Saturn Sound.” Like many Saturn LPs, this one was recorded in rehearsal, lending the proceedings a casual, spontaneous quality which suits these restructured standards. But, as with most all of Sun Ra’s output, this is not an ad-hoc or amateurish affair. Rather, this is serious and committed music - it was just recorded in an ad-hoc, amateurish way and, rather than repelling the listener, manages to draw you in and only adds to its considerable charm.

The bonus tracks are a nice touch, especially the untitled Ra composition recorded at the same session and the two additional takes of “I’ll Get By” recorded in 1973 provide some insight into the band’s varied approaches to this otherwise unremarkable tune. Corbett notes in the liner notes: “In the distance, the muffled remnant of a previous track appears, taped over on this home recording, the almost in-sync backwards drums providing a low-key element of surreality.” Perfect - just the kind of lucky accident that is so pervasive in Sun Ra’s extensive discography.

Wonderful stuff.


1 comment:

Sam said...

Excellent take on an excellent album, Rodger! In its relatively small ensemble setting and its featuring John Gilmore heavily on almost every track, "Some Blues" is a harbinger of the classic Horo sessions. And like those sessions, Gilmore is brilliant on every track. It's also wonderful to hear the trumpet playing of Akh Tal Ebah in a more relaxed setting than usual. The killer double trumpet pairing of Ebah and Kwame Hadi has always been my favorite of all the trumpet personnel that went through the Arkestra (a strong lineup that includes Walter Miller, Chris Capers, Hobart Dotson, and Ahmed Abdullah).