July 19, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Astro Infinity Arkestra: Atlantis (Evidence ECD 22067)

After a flurry of recording activity that began with the Arkestra’s arrival in New York City in 1961 and culminated with the ESP-era recordings of 1965-1966, the following years (until about 1970) are, by comparison, sparsely documented with individual tracks spread across various compilations, singles, and only a very few self-contained albums. So it seems to make sense to continue our chronological investigation with the albums proper (along with contemporaneous singles) before doubling back with the miscellaneous compilations that fill in the blanks. In other words, I’m putting off dealing with The Solar Myth Approach Vols.1 & 2 until all else has been examined from this time period!

Which means we jump ahead a year to Atlantis, recorded in 1967 and originally released as Saturn ESR 507 in 1969. There are changes afoot in the band’s sound: always an early adopter of technology, Ra can be heard on side one playing exclusively a Hohner Clavinet, a recently released electronic keyboard that was later popularized by Stevie Wonder (see e.g. "Superstition” in 1972). Ra renames it the “Solar Sound Instrument” and plays it in his own inimitable fashion. Recorded in rehearsal at the Sun Studio (the Arkestra’s rented townhouse located at 48 East Third Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side), these tracks feature a bare-bones Arkestra: Gilmore can be heard from time to time on tenor saxophone, but these pieces mostly feature Ra’s clavinet over beds of percussion and sound more like sonic experiments than full-fledged compositions. But what interesting experiments!

“Mu” is a slow, 5/4 clavinet vamp with Gilmore tentatively outlining an up and down melody. “Lemuria” is another 5/4 boogie with Gilmore laying down some heavy duty riffing on top of Ra’s extra-funky clavinet. “Yucatan” is a dreamy, modal ballad wherein Ra demonstrates his remarkably sensitive touch on the primitive electronic keyboard. Hartmut Geerken points out in the discography that what sounds like electric bass us actually “two tightly interlaced African drum patterns!” (2nd ed., p.136). “Bimini” consists of roiling polyrhythmic percussion with Ra interjecting some jabbing chords on the clavinet. The Evidence CD also includes an alternate version of “Yucatan” that mistakenly appeared on the 1973 reissue of Atlantis on Impulse! Actually, this track has nothing to do with the other composition of the same name, but is rather another noisy percussion-fest interspersed with Ra’s distinctive clavinet chording. A telephone rings signaling a quick cadence to end.

The side-long title track was recorded live at the Olatunji Center of African Culture sometime after May, 1967 and is essentially one long Ra solo on the other new keyboard in his arsenal: a Gibson Kalamazoo organ. The Kalamazoo was a lower-priced copy of the Farfisa portable organ made famous by rock musicians of the time (think “96 Tears”). Ra attacks the instrument with unrelenting, two-fisted zeal, summoning forth a tsunami of sound that duly evokes the mythical flooding of Atlantis. It is a hair-raisingly terrifying performance and as menacingly psychedelic as any music of the period. After about fifteen assaultive minutes, an eerie calm sets in and the Arkestra plays an aching, moaning, richly voiced ensemble passage while Ra’s screeching organ threatens to overwhelm. The tension continues to mount until it is almost unbearable – then suddenly Ra cues the space chant: “Sun Ra and his band from outer space have entertained you here…” Holy moly! As Michael Shore puts it in his liner notes on the Evidence CD, “Atlantis” is “frightening, fascinating, enthralling, and finally overpowering music…[It] is one of the most monumental achievements of an artist who was always working in super-colossal terms.” Essential.


The Sun Studio session(s) also yielded a single (Saturn 911-AR) released in 1969 and is available on The Singles (Evidence ECD 22164). “Blues on Planet Mars” is a typically spaced out blues, this time scored for the boing-ing clavinet and some lurching, cross-rhythmic percussion. The B-side, “Saturn Moon,” is something else entirely: Ra sets up some droning, guitaristic accompaniment on the clavinet for the Arkestra’s quietly majestic, harmonized humming while drums tap away ominously in the background. Interesting! Neither of these tracks would have conceptually fit on Atlantis, but are intriguing works in themselves and I can understand why Ra thought them worthy of release as a single.

1 comment:

Sam said...

A couple of quick comments:
--the band entrance at the end of "Atlantis" has always reminded me of Guy Lombardo (and that's not a criticism).
--I agree that side 1 sounds more like undeveloped studies than finished pieces; perhaps for that reason, I haven't warmed to it as much as other stuff from this period. But of course when I'm in the right mood, the music suits me just fine.