September 27, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Outer Spaceways Incorporated [sic] (Freedom CD741085)

This is yet another record with a horribly tortured history. In 1971, Sun Ra sold a stash of tapes to Alan Bates of the German label, Black Lion, who shortly thereafter issued this album under the title, Pictures of Infinity. A 1994 CD reissue added a previously unreleased bonus track (“Intergalactic Motion”) and all cuts were again reissued in 1998 on the three-CD box set, Calling Planet Earth (Freedom 7612), but there the album is stupidly re-titled Outer Spaceways Incorporated. I say stupidly because a 1974 album originally titled Outer Spaceways Incorporated (Saturn 14300A+B) was also re-issued in the same box set and inexplicably re-titled Spaceways, thereby creating all kinds of unnecessary discographical confusion. Be that as it may, this album (whatever its title) is drawn from an excellent stereo recording of a live performance in New York City circa. 1968 and provides a rare, hi-fi glimpse of the newly evolving “cosmo drama.”

The Arkestra declaims, “Somewhere There!” and immediately blasts off into full-blown, New Thing-styled energy music, Gilmore taking the lead with an astonishingly fleet tenor solo. Unfortunately, a good half of the track’s fifteen minute duration is taken up with more pointless drum solos by Clifford Jarvis and his hyperactive bass-drum pedal. When the Arkestra finally interjects some aimless space chords and free-jazz squealing and honking, it all seems a bit anticlimactic. Maybe you just had to be there. “Outer Space Incorporated” [sic] opens with some rubato free improv until Ra introduces the bouncy chord progression, taken at a bright tempo. The Arkestra chants the words in increasingly dissonant harmony before brief, quiet solos from piano and bass. The free rubato section returns with braying horns, busy percussion, and cacophonous piano before quickly fading out to modest applause. “Intergalactic Motion,” whose correct title is actually “Ankhnaton,” is a jaunty big-band number that dates back to the 1960 album, Fate in a Pleasant Mood (Saturn 202/Evidence ECD 22068). The composition alternates a hugely catchy riff with a swinging bridge section. Bernard Pettaway and Ali Hassan dominate with dueling trombone solos before giving way to Ra’s nimble piano, where he explores the nooks and crannies of odd harmonic inversions. Boykins and Jarvis provide a solid foundation of joyous swing and Boykins eventually takes over with a typically virtuosic bass solo before the horns return for a ragged reprise to end. “Saturn” is another classic Ra composition dating all the way back to 1956. The A-section sets a serpentine, atonal melody atop an agitated up-and-down rhythm while the B-section suddenly unleashes contrastingly fast and furious swing changes. It is the perfect vehicle for Gilmore’s prodigious talents and he does not disappoint here. Ra adds a pointed statement on piano before Gilmore leads the ensemble through the complex head to end. Some pitter-pattering percussion segues directly into “Song of the Sparer,” a slow modal ballad introduced by Ra’s piano. Held notes on saxophones, piccolo, flute, and trumpet outline subtly shifting, suspended harmonies over Ra’s restless chord progression. It’s an interesting piece, somewhat tentatively performed (apparently only this one time). The final track, “Spontaneous Simplicity,” is possibly from an earlier concert (perhaps 1967), given the slightly different ambience and a noticeably smaller Arkestra. Prof. Campbell also suggests this is Gilmore on drums rather than Jarvis and, after close listening, I think that might be right. (If it’s Jarvis, he is playing with uncharacteristic restraint!) In any event, Marshall Allen plays scrumptiously delicious flute along with Ra’s delicate piano filigrees while Boykins holds down the two-note bass-line over a bed of gently percolating percussion. A beautiful example of one of Ra’s patented “space ballads.”

Despite the anomalous titling and sometimes ragged ensembles, this album is definitely worth hearing for the opportunity to hear the Arkestra in a live setting during this crucial (yet sparsely documented) period of transition.

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