January 11, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Solar Arkestra: Horizon (Art Yard CD08) (2008)

Recorded live at the Ballon Theatre, Cairo, Egypt 12/17/71

The Arkestra’s own Art Yard label continues to make some of the rarest Sun Ra material available with this expanded reissue of Horizon. Portions of this material were originally released on El Saturn 1217718 in Philadelphia, El Saturn 849 in Chicago, and on Thoth Intergalactic 7771, all at various points in the early to mid-1970s and all nearly impossible to find. This CD gathers all the extant recordings from this historic performance at the Ballon Theatre, near the Great Pyramids in Cairo, a suitably cosmic venue for Sun Ra’s band of space travelers.

A trip to Egypt was unplanned, but at the end of the 1971 European tour, Ra decided to sell some concert tapes to Black Lion [FN1] to fund a pilgrimage to the land of the Pharaohs. Thanks to the efforts of Hartmut Geerken, a handful of performances were arranged and, even though the Arkestra’s instruments were held up in customs, loaners were provided by a most unlikely personage:

[Salah Ragab was] a brigadier general and the head of military music in the Egyptian army and himself a jazz drummer. Though he was later disciplined for the contact, he continued to meet with the band under various disguises, including once when he came with the son of [Egyptian President] Gamal Abdel Nasser, also a jazz musician. Musicians and dancers were jammed into the house with several dozen guests, but they still managed a light show and dancing, and a march throughout the house and into the garden (while the Egyptian secret police kept watch from outside). (Szwed p.292-293) [FN2]

This concert is typical for the period, although there’s a certain focus and solemnity to the Arkestra’s demeanor that seems appropriate given the auspicious location. Sun Ra himself is in especially good form with his propulsive piano, spooky “tiger organ,” and hair-raising rocket ship journeys on the Moog synthesizer. “The Shadow World” makes another mysterious appearance with its insanely complicated melodies. “Discipline #8” is especially beautiful with its slowly oscillating two-note riff that subtly anchors the freely dancing drums and powerfully energetic horn solos, duets, and trios. Sing-alongs like “Enlightenment,” “Space is the Place,” and “The Satellites Are Spinning” round things out and feature the angelic voice of June Tyson.

Premises considered, sound quality is pretty good, though not a hi-fi spectacular by any means. Probably recorded from the audience with a single microphone, there’s plenty of ambience but limited frequency response, dynamic range, or soundstage. Fans will, of course, be undeterred by low-fidelity recordings as it comes with the territory. After all, Sun Ra was a trail-blazing pioneer of DIY record production. In fact, that “Saturn Sound” is, for some of us, part of the charm. For others, however, Horizon may be rough going. But as a historical document and a key disc in Sun Ra’s vast discography, this is essential.

[FN1]: Campbell (1st ed.) says these tapes are unreleased. I’m not sure if they have been subsequently made available. Anybody know? (Yes, I need to get the second edition of Campbell’s discography, but it too is woefully out of date at this point).

[FN2]: Some of Salah Rageb’s music can be heard on The Sun Ra Arkestra Meets Salah Ragab in Egypt (Leo/Golden Years GY1, 1999).


Sam said...

Question: how long is "The Shadow World" on this release? On the original LP it ends side 1 and sorta cuts off after a short drum solo. It's about 10 minutes long total. Is that the case on this CD?

I love everything from this Egyptian series of shows! The band is large and on fire. From this LP, I especially love "Third Planet," a great piece that would be resurrected in Italy in 1978, but overall not played that much by Ra over the years. It's interesting, also, to hear the early version of "Space is the place" with only the first half of the familiar melody (but with a blistering Marshall Allen sax solo!).

paul w. said...

hi sam, i can answer your question regarding shadow world. on saturn vinyl lp shadow world is about 14:20 min. on art yard cd it is shown as 16:42 min. in length. as i don't have art yard cd yet - i cannot say if there is any additional music there - probably there is.

i fully agree with your opinion on horizon album. i also like very much "third planet" (one of the finest sun ra compositions)and the early version of "space is the place" with great organ and fiery alto sax solo by marshall allen.

i am waiting now to have opportunity to listen to horizon - extended version on art yard with cleaned and improved sound and 4 extra tracks.