February 8, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Mr. Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Bad and Beautiful (Evidence ECD 22038)
Recorded at the Choreographer’s Workshop, NYC Nov.-Dec. 1961
Originally released as Saturn 532 (1972)

By 1961, Mr. Sun Ra and a diminished Arkestra had inadvertently relocated from Chicago to New York City and, although gig opportunities were slim, Tommy Hunter had rejoined the band on percussion. Hunter subsequently purchased an Ampex 601 reel-to-reel tape recorder at a pawn shop in order to record the Arkestra’s frequent rehearsals. Hunter was also fortuitously employed, first at Columbus Rehearsal Studio on 8th Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets and later at the Choreographer’s Workshop at 414 West 51st Street. Thanks to Hunter, the Arkestra was able to rehearse and record rent-free on nights and weekends for the next three years (see Szwed, pp.186-187). Ra had frequently recorded rehearsals back in Chicago, but 1961 would mark the beginning of a particularly fruitful period.

Bad and Beautiful is the very first of a long series of wonderful Saturn records made at the Choreographer’s Workshop in the 1960s. This particular session was recorded in a room on the third or fourth floor where the acoustics and the piano were “not to Ra’s liking” (Campbell, 1st ed., p. 24). Sonny apparently preferred the basement where there was a good piano and better acoustics (Szwed, p.187). Indeed there is a noticeably hissy and tinny quality to the sound. But there is also that pleasantly reverberant atmosphere that characterizes all of the Choreographer’s Workshop records: They have that Saturn Sound. Along with Ra and Hunter, the sextet includes Marshall Allen on alto sax and flute, John Gilmore on tenor sax, Pat Patrick on baritone sax, Ronnie Boykins on bass. They sound supremely relaxed, languidly exploring hoary standards and show tunes along with some rather conventional Ra originals. Gilmore is in his usual fine form throughout but his oh-so-smooth solo on “Search Light Blues” is truly deep and soulful. Pat Patrick plays the unwieldy baritone saxophone with astounding grace on the riff-based “Ankh” and on the gently swinging “On the Blue Side.” But then “Exotic Two” points to the future with each Arkestra member banging away on percussion instruments in dense poly-rhythms while Ra punches out stiff chord sequences on the piano. (Small percussion instruments can be heard chattering away on “Search Light Blues” as well.) The album closes with a languorous ensemble arrangement of “And This Is My Beloved.” In all, Bad and Beautiful is a transitional, historically important album and its subdued atmosphere and sophisticated musicianship also makes for a simply pleasant Sun Ra Sunday.


Evidence ECD 22038 also contains We Travel the Spaceways (Saturn 409), recorded at various places in Chicago during the late-1950s; it will be considered separately.

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