January 25, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Cosmos (Spalax 14561) (1999)
Recorded at Studio Hautefeuille, Paris, France, August 1976
Originally released as Cobra (France) COB 37001 (1976)

According to Robert L. Campbell’s discography (1st ed.), this LP was also issued on Musicdistribution 60005 and Inner City IC 1020 shortly after the original Cobra release. It was first re-issued on compact disc by the French Buda label (82479) but the original CD apparently suffers from a boomingly bass-heavy mix. This 1999 issue on Spalax purports to correct that deficiency - but I’m not so sure; it sounds lopsided still, with prominent electric bass and distant drums. Regardless, this is one of my very favorite Sun Ra records.

The sonic imbalances no doubt have to something to do with the cramped quarters of the recording studio. According to French horn player (!), Vincent Chauncey, the Arkestra was reduced to a core group of twelve musicians for this session due to the limited space (Campbell (1st ed.) p.73). Oh, but what a group! Along with Chauncey, Ra’s faithful stalwarts, John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, Danny Davis, Danny Thompson, Elo Omoe, and Jac Jackson fill out the reed section while Ahmed Abdullah plays sensitive, tasteful trumpet and the incredible Craig Harris virtuosically holds down the trombone chair. The rhythm section consists of R. Anthony Bunn on (nice, but overloud) electric bass, Larry Bright on (barely audible) drums, and, of course, Sun Ra himself on the electric Rocksichord. Caught in the midst of a European tour, the Arkestra sounds well-rehearsed, at the top of their game.

But as great as the band sounds on this date, it is Ra’s electric keyboard that makes this such a delightfully engaging record for me. Throughout the album, Ra’s Rocksichord has this weird, wire-thin, reedy sound quality, upon which he pours some molasses-thick phase-shifter that hisses away incessantly in the background. Now, in anyone else’s hands, this would be unbelievably cheesy, even amateurish. Yet Ra guilelessly tackles the wide variety material and, through his visionary technical abilities, miraculously balances the seemingly limited electronic keyboard textures with the expansive, acoustic Arkestra to create a decidedly strange, but appropriately otherworldly ambience. Ra’s ultra-spacey keyboard turns tracks like “Interstellar Low-Ways,”, “Moonship Journey,” and “Journey Among the Stars” into dreamy, nearly narcotic reveries. Even the more straightforwardly big-band-ish tracks like “The Mystery of Two,” “Neo Project #2,” and the aptly-titled “Jazz From an Unknown Planet” are transformed by Ra’s swooshing, buzzing Rocksichord. The brief title track stands out as a vehicle for another classic John Gilmore solo on tenor saxophone atop an intense Arkestra arrangement, but overall the mood is pretty and mellow and perfect for a Sunday evening.

2 comments:

Sam said...

Rodger, another great review--you're much kinder to this record than I've been in the past; I need to go back and re-listen. Don't know what it is about it that has made me treat it in my mind as a "lesser" Ra album. It may be that the very thing that has drawn you to it--the rocksichord--is the thing that kept me away. It's a very monochromatic instrument, if that's the right word--it's kinda one-toned. And its predominance throughout this album gives it a one-dimensional feeling that the music doesn't overcome. At least that's what I've thought in the past. But it's certainly true that if anyone could make it more flexible and interesting, it would be Ra! So thanks for sending me back...

Rodger Coleman said...

Sam, I agree that in the grand scheme of things, this is a "lesser" Ra album. But there's a consistent mood to the record that I really enjoy, which is largely due to Ra's keyboard playing. The Rocksichord reminds me of the sound of my first electronic piano back in the late-70s...I wanted a Fender-Rhodes, but that was out of the question. So this thing had that thin, reedy sound that I felt like never fit...so what amazes me about this record is how Ra does SO MUCH with SO LITTLE. It really comes down to his note choices and articulation (and his Arkestration) and it just "fits" in a way that would seem impossible (to me, anyway). And, besides, Sundays can be, um, difficult, and I can't always handle the intensity of top-shelf Ra...