October 4, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Janus (1201 Music CD)

Janus was apparently conceived by Sun Ra as a self-contained album around 1970, but it was never issued. In 1971, the tapes were sold (along with a bunch of other recordings) to Alan Bates, but Black Lion also failed to release any of this material. Eventually, some of these tracks were scattered across various obscure Saturn LPs of the seventies and eighties, such as Invisible Shield and Space Probe and only on exceptionally hard to find, hybridized pressings at that. Thankfully, 1201 Music rescued this long neglected album, releasing it essentially as Ra originally conceived it on this 1999 CD, complete with insightful liner notes from Prof. Robert L. Campbell himself. The music was mostly recorded around 1967 to 1970, although there is a tantalizing expanse of music from the magical Choreographer’s Workshop period tacked onto the title track – a precocious bit of editing that demonstrates Ra’s skills with a razor blade and splicing tape. Despite their variable sound quality and sometimes haphazard packaging, Sun Ra constructed his albums with great care and considered the LP as something more than mere documentation of his work, but as works of art in and of themselves. Janus is an excellent example of his craftsmanship.

In his liner notes, Campbell aptly describes “Island in the Sun” as “one of those relaxed, flowing compositions with mildly exotic rhythms that are much beloved by Ra fans.” Indeed, it is beautiful example of what I call Ra’s “space ballads.” Marshall Allen’s flute harmonizes so nicely with Danny Davis’s alto clarinet on the lilting, sing-song-ing melody while Ronnie Boykins lays down a loping bass line atop the cheerfully pitter-pattering hand drums. Sonny enters with a sparse solo consisting of floating piano chords before Allen returns to lead into the final, peaceful refrain. What a lovely way to begin the album.

Despite the label text, the CD combines “The Invisible Shield” and “Janus” into one thirteen-minute-long track, which makes sense in a way, since these two tracks are constructed from three different performances and the one segues directly into the other. (Still, I’d rather have each title separately indexed and the label is misleading.) Recorded live in 1970, “The Invisible Shield” opens with an outrageous alto saxophone solo by Marshall Allen, accompanied by Danny Ray Thompson on the ghostly Neptunian Libflecto (a bassoon with French Horn mouthpiece) but Ra soon takes over with a two-fisted organ/synthesizer solo that sounds like a mad scientist conjuring up doomsday. Right at the apocalyptic climax, a tape edit slams us into “Janus,” the first thirty-five seconds of which are from a Sun Studio recording circa. 1967 or ‘68 with Ra on clavinet or gongs (or both), heavily amplified and distorted, creating ominous thunderclouds and sonic lightning. Then another quick edit splices in a very spacey improvisation recorded at the Choreographer’s Workshop circa. 1963, full of Tommy Hunter’s over-the-top reverb and echo effects along with Allen’s piccolo and Art Jenkins’s eerie “space voice.” A final edit ends the piece with quietly chiming bell sounds. Ra’s sequencing of this wildly disparate material into a satisfying whole is a perfect example of his visionary, DIY approach to record-making.

The album closes with two live recordings from early 1968. “Velvet” is a swinging, big-band bop number that dates back to 1959’s Jazz in Silhouette (Saturn 5786/Evidence ECD 22014). The ensemble sections are a little shaky, but Pat Patrick turns in an exemplary performance with his rumbling baritone sax solo, Robert Northern provides a couple of choruses on the rarely heard French horn, and Ra delivers a typically terse statement on piano before the reprise. “Joy” is a conducted improvisation that begins with dissonant, braying horns over Ra’s cascading piano clusters and pounding drums and percussion. The ensemble eventually drops out leaving Danny Davis to extemporize a cappella on the alto sax before the rhythm sections returns to provide frenzied support. After a while, the full ensemble resumes its scattering of contrary lines, honks, and squeals and Ra plays rippling, romantic chords on piano along with pure-toned whines on the Clavioline. The music gets slowly quieter while Jarvis takes over with a typically manic drum solo that abruptly cuts off after a minute or so. Did the tape run out? Or is this another deliberate edit? Either way, I’m grateful; there is no doubt Jarvis went on and on for several more minutes! Certainly, it is an odd ending to an otherwise very interesting piece of music.

Janus not only contains precious documentation of a crucial period in Sun Ra’s music, but it is also a supremely well-crafted album in its own right. Covering a wide range of material in a mere thirty-five minutes, it would make an excellent introduction to Ra’s sixties era music for the novice; for the connoisseur, it is absolutely essential.

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