December 14, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Music From Tomorrow’s World (Atavistic UMS/ALP237)

The companion to last week’s disc, Music from Tomorrow’s World is another collection of never-before heard music from Sun Ra’s tenure in Chicago. The first thirty minutes of the disc consists of an amateur recording of a live set at the Wonder Inn, where the Arkestra, stripped down to a sextet, was in residency for much of 1960. The sound quality is remarkably good considering the era and the less-than-ideal circumstances. Certainly it is full of delightful ambience: the cash register clinks, folks are laughing and talking. But one woman is way into it, shouting encouragements like, “Play it, Sun Ra, play it like you want!” And he does. The repertoire is pretty adventurous for nightclub work, opening with three Ra originals: “Angels and Demons at Play,” a slinky 5/4 ostinato groove with some pretty flute playing by Marshall Allen; “Spontaneous Simplicity” featuring more beautiful flute work over gently rolling rhythms (but who is the second flutist?); “Space Aura” swings hard and fast with a typically brilliant tenor saxophone solo by John Gilmore. Next up are some earnestly goofy vocal numbers, including a truly bent version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” It’s interesting to note that Sun Ra plays both acoustic and electric piano in a live setting, using the Wurlitzer for color, not convenience on the cramped stage. “How High The Moon” begins with a Sun Ra poem which leaves the audience puzzled, but things heat up with a cooking Gilmore solo and by that time the crowd is into it, calling out to the musicians, clapping hands, hooting and hollering. A spooky rendition of “China Gate” concludes the set with metallic percussion clattering ominously behind warbling, over-the-top vocals. Fascinating!

The remainder of the disc is given over to a forty-minute Majestic Hall studio session also recorded in 1960. Transcribed from a lowly cassette tape several generations away from the now-lost master recording, it’s pretty rough going sonically compared to the Wonder Inn stuff. Nevertheless, it’s a sparkling performance by an eight-piece Arkestra and includes three previously unheard original compositions by Ra. It’s well worth fighting through the murky sound quality to hear these intriguing bits of music. What’s striking about this session is how polished and well-rehearsed the Arkestra sounds, executing the variety of material with confidence and finesse, especially in the ensemble sections where the rich orchestrations require precision and balance. Too bad it’s so hard to discern amidst the noise and distortion. Still, it’s listenable if you can acclimate yourself to the rather gnarly sound.

Shortly after these recordings were made, Sun Ra and his most dedicated musicians would make their way to New York City (via Canada) and Philadelphia, never to return to Chicago for any extended period of time. With Music From Tomorrow’s World, Atavistic has provided us with another glimpse into Sonny’s working life prior to fulfilling his alter-destiny and is therefore a crucial historical document for Sun Ra fans.

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