September 6, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra: The Night of the Purple Moon (Atavistic CD)

In mid-1970, Sun Ra reentered Variety Recording Studio, this time with a bare-bone Arkestra and yet another new electronic keyboard in tow, the RMI Rocksichord. In his perceptive liner notes to this CD, John Corbett describes the sound of the Rocksichord as an “unforgettable nasal quack,” and that’s a pretty accurate description of this primitive, transistorized electric piano. In another person’s hands, this would sound cheesy and (now) hopelessly out of date. But Ra builds solid, evocative compositions around the instrument and it is, inexplicably, just exactly perfect. Unfortunately, the original tapes were unsalvageable, so this reissue had to be sourced from a clean LP. There’s plenty of surface noise present, so at least we can be thankful the producers didn’t get carried away with the noise reduction and de-clicking, which can often just make things worse. Although Impulse! was prepared to reissue this album in late-seventies, it has remained an ultra-rare artifact until Atavistic released this CD in 2007. Despite the less-than-perfect sound-quality, The Night of the Purple Moon is one of the great Sun Ra albums – and one of my favorite albums of all time.

Gilmore plays mostly drums throughout, only pulling out the tenor saxophone for “Impromptu Festival,” where Danny Davis sits in on the drum stool. While neither were virtuoso drummers, they were more than adequate and, most importantly, well understood the unique rhythmic feel of Ra’s music. Stafford James produces a beautiful, rounded tone on the electric bass, at times almost sounding like an upright acoustic. Sadly, this was James’s only recorded appearance with the Arkestra. “Sun Earth Rock” sets the tone with the quacking Rocksichord changes over a medium groove and a simple, bluesy head. After a bouncy keyboard interlude, Davis peals off a brief, but astonishingly fluent alto sax solo. “The All of Everything” is a pretty ballad with Davis adding some mellifluous flute to Ra’s gently rippling chords. Gilmore’s tenor solo on “Impromptu Festival” is another example of his sheer genius: opening with a sort of fanfare, he bends and twists the two-note melody and massages the stiff, pre-bop rhythms to construct a trenchant, incisive statement.

The next three tracks feature Sonny alone with two Minimoogs and the Rocksichord, but unlike the experimental improvisations found of My Brother the Wind Vol.II, the pieces are tautly controlled compositions orchestrated for electronic keyboards. “Blue Soul” is a typically moody, down-tempo blues while “Narrative” sets a loping, asymmetrical bass line on synthesizer against stabbing chords and busy melodic figures on the Rocksichord. “Outside the Time Zone” takes a rubato ballad form and puts the melody in the bass synthesizer, embellished with buzzing, quivering Rocksichord.

The ensemble returns with “The Night of the Purple Moon,” which sets up a blues-rock vamp for bass and drums while Ra noodles around in a quasi-Egyptian mode. A tremolo effect gives the Rocksichord a fluttering, psychedelic tinge. “A Bird’s Eye View of Man’s World” pits lurching bass and Rocksichord unisons against Davis’s squealing alto, while Gilmore drifts in and out of time with free abandon. “21st Century Romance” is another lilting ballad with James holding down a throbbing pedal point with Gilmore’s simple, but effective drumming. Meanwhile, Davis extemporizes on the richly woody alto clarinet along with Ra’s thrumming Rocksichord. “Dance of the Living Image” choogles along with a repeating ostinato and Davis tapping away on bongos. The album closes with a relaxed performance of “Love in Outer Space,” a tune which was by now a staple in the Arkestra’s songbook. Davis alternates between alto clarinet and bongos, leaving most of the musical space to Ra’s percolating Rocksichord.

For this CD reissue, Atavistic has conveniently added the alternate version of “Love in Outer Space” that was previously issued on Out There a Minute. Taken a slightly faster tempo, this version follows a similar contour, but is perhaps a more satisfying performance due to Ra’s interestingly varied electronic timbres. Three additional bonus tracks are also included, derived from a 1964 home recording of Sonny soloing on Wurlitzer electric piano and electric celesta. The Wurlitzer sounds a little worse for wear, but the damaged instrument creates interesting percussive, overtone-laden effects which mesh nicely with the ringing, bell-like celesta. While these tracks are mostly inconsequential, they are conceptually similar to the Minimoog and Rocksichord solos found on the album proper, and serve to further demonstrate Ra’s brilliantly coloristic approach to electronics. An appropriate appendix to a near-perfect album.


Sam said...

Another brilliant write-up, Rodger. "Purple Moon" is also one of my all-time favorite Ra albums, although it's hard for me to say why. I love Gilmore's drumming, loose and flexible, fitting just perfectly. I love the relaxed feel of the performances, and the album as a whole sustains this mood. One small question: check the discography (don't have it with me now) but I'm fairly sure this may have been, if not the first, then a relatively early, appearance of "Love in Outer Space." It had not yet become a staple in Ra's repertoire, although it certainly would after this. It sort of evolved into a more aggressively waltzy percussion feature, also acquiring vocals along the way, but he never returned to the placid peacefulness of these versions.

Rodger Coleman said...

Sam, I agree that it is difficult to convey what makes this album so special. But I think you hit on it: relaxed feel, consistent mood of peacefulness..."Love in Outer Space" first appeared on SECRETS OF THE SUN in 1962, so I kind of assumed it was part of the repertoire by 1970, although, as you know, the discography is spotty from 1967-1970. I need to dig out what I have from the period. Thanks for commenting!