July 12, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Spaceways (Freedom CD741047)

This record certainly has a tortured discographical history! In December, 1971, Sun Ra sold a cache of tapes to the Black Lion label so as to pay the Arkestra’s traveling expenses from Denmark to Egypt. Sadly, much of this music was never released. In 1974, El Saturn released this album as Outer Spaceways Incorporated (143000A+B) – although it was sometimes entitled A Tonal View of Times Tomorrow, Vol.3. Inexplicably, some of this music also appeared on numerous hybrid pressings of later Saturn albums such as Primitone and Invisible Shield among others. Finally, in 1998, the German DA Music label released a three-CD box set entitled Calling Planet Earth (Freedom 7612), containing some (but not all) the Black Lion holdings, wherein this album is stupidly re-titled Spaceways. I say stupidly because another disc in this otherwise fine box set is inanely titled Outer Spaceways Incorporated, making an already confusing discography needlessly opaque. This is the kind of thing that makes Campbell and Trent’s Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra so absolutely necessary!

In any event, Spaceways (or whatever you want to call it) is a great companion piece to the classic Nothing Is. Most of the music appears to have been recorded around 1966, given the presence of the trombonist Teddy Nance (who died in 1967) and Ra’s distinctive piano/Clavioline combo. Recorded in stereo, it offers remarkably good sound quality for the period. The first track, “Prelude and Shadow-Light World” (originally titled “Chromatic Shadows” on the El Saturn LP), opens with a long, dramatic piano introduction which prepares the way for the ensemble chant, “Sun Ra and His Band from Outer Space.” Then comes the notorious “Shadow World,” which is marked by a slightly more relaxed tempo than usual and a honking, wailing bari sax solo from Pat Patrick. Ra takes a solo turn before giving way to burbling percussion. Finally, Ra conjures up a mammoth space chord to bring things to a close. The second track, “The Wind Speaks,” appears to be from the same concert and is another beautiful Ra ballad featuring a choir of flutes and piccolo. Eventually, Boykins takes a solo turn with the bow and Ra enters to duet on the electric Clavioline. Ra then returns to the piano for some frenetic variations on the theme before an elegiac, full ensemble re-statement. This composition was later re-titled “Somebody Else’s World” after acquiring lyrics.

June Tyson’s unmistakable voice singing the end of “Satellites Are Spinning” opens “We Sing This Song,” indicating a probable 1968 recording date (the sound quality is also noticeably inferior to the rest of the album). Her singing gradually trails off leaving the stage to Sun Ra’s rhapsodic, thunderous piano. “Outer Space Incorporated” [sic] returns to the previous concert, with the bouncy space chant setting the stage for a swinging piano solo. Ra suddenly holds down a deep bass tremolo causing the rhythm section to die down, leaving Nance and Bernard Pettaway to engage in a friendly trombone duel, sometimes joined by Ra’s Calvioline or some jib-jabbering percussion. Ra then lays down a heavy piano chord which signals another lengthy drum solo from Clifford Jarvis. Now, Jarvis is a technically brilliant drummer (check out that bass drum!), but drum solos are almost never a good idea, in my opinion. Thankfully, after a few minutes, the rest of the Arkestra takes up various hand-percussion, giving things are more interestingly pan-African, poly-rhythmic feel (despite Jarvis’s continued show-boating). Ra shuts things down with a startling piano entry, signaling another heaving space chord. Some deft editing surreptitiously launches us into “We Travel the Spaceways,” which is clearly taken from a different concert, given the subtle change in soundstage (Boykins is suddenly stage left!). This version retains the original arrangement, featuring the prominent metallic clanging on the fours but, unfortunately, the Arkestra only sings the refrain a few times before the track fades out. Despite the anomalous titling on this reissue, Spaceways is a delightful album and an important live document of the Heliocentric-era Arkestra. The Calling Planet Earth box set is currently out of print, but can found on the secondary market for a modest premium. It is definitely worth seeking out, even with its myriad documentary flaws.

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