Sun Ra & His Blue Universe Arkestra: Universe in Blue (Saturn LP>CDR)
Released as Saturn ESR 5000 IGB in 1972 (in mono), Universe in Blue was recorded live somewhere on the west coast presumably around August, 1971. However, the greatly reduced Arkestra suggests that it could have been recorded “somewhere on the road” in mid-1972, as they straggled across the country on their way back to Philadelphia for good (see Campbell & Trent pp.172-173). To further confuse the matter, “The Good Doctor” at ESP-disk’ provides a firm date of August 17, 1971 but insists the venue is Slug’s Saloon in New York City (see below). Who knows? In any event, behind the striking, psychedelicized album cover awaits a tasty selection of smoky, blues-based compositions, dominated by Ra’s patented “space-age barbeque” organ.
Sun Ra leads the way on the somnambulant title track, a dreamy, slowly smoldering blues, demonstrating his mastery of the tradition while summoning up swelling and percussive Hammond-like sounds from the otherwise cheesy Farfisa organ. After a blissful five minutes, Kwami Hadi enters on trumpet, only to be rudely cut off by the tape running out. Ouch! Some amount of music is missing, with part two picking up with the rhythm section reaching a low boil, with a sparse horn section offering swinging punctuation to Hadi’s bravura trumpet statements. John Gilmore then takes over with his soulful growl for a chorus or two on tenor sax before Ra returns with a brief, understated solo on organ to end. “Blackman” sets up a moderately rocking groove for June Tyson, who evokes a time when “Pharaoh was sitting on his throne, when the Blackman ruled this land.” Over and over she implores, her voice cracking with emotion, “I hope you understand!” When I hear her sing, I think I do understand.
“In a Blue Mood” is another slow burner featuring more fingerlickin’ good organ from Mr. Ra. Campbell & Trent suggest Alzo Wright is playing cello on this gig (p.172), but I can’t hear him at all. In this instance, Sonny is playing a wandering walking bass with his left hand, soloing all the while with his right. This is a truly superb solo performance by Sun Ra. “Another Shade of Blue” concludes the album with a mid-tempo swing number led by Gilmore’s indomitable tenor. Sonny shifts gears seemingly at random with unexpected key modulations while ad libbed horn riffs pop in and out. Unfazed, Gilmore just keeps things cooking -- and good lord, twelve minutes later, he’s still wailing away like a madman as the track fades out. Dang! Yes folks, it’s yet another incredible John Gilmore solo – what more can I say? It must be heard to be believed.
In the summer of 2008, “The Good Doctor” at ESP-Disk’ produced a six-part internet radio tribute to Sun Ra which included over two hours of music from this concert -- recorded in stereo, amazingly enough. Even more surprising, “Universe in Blue Pts.1&2” is presented uncut and it sounds much better than my “needle-drop” of the LP. (Curiously, the rest of Universe in Blue is not found on the broadcast, adding further confusion about possible recording dates.) After some polite applause, a fifteen-minute “Intergalactic Research” follows with another extended tenor workout from Gilmore. “Discipline 27” allows the full ensemble to shine on this sweetly harmonized swing number. The thirty-minute “Blackman” is very different from the LP version, beyond its extraordinary length. Without introduction, Tyson begins by singing a cappella with Marshall Allen soon joining in on some wiggly oboe. Allen then takes over with a thrilling solo as a roiling groove is built up in the rhythm section, Pat Patrick leading the band with the hypnotic three-note riff on baritone sax. Suddenly, a male voice (Eloe Omoe?) starts yodeling and carrying on hysterically, compelling Tyson to resume her incantatory singing. At the eleven minute mark, Ra embarks on a lengthy declamation, assuming the role of the resurrected Pharaoh, who has returned from outer space to lead his people back to Egypt, away from "the path of destruction." “Destiny rules and fate decides and I command both of them!” he exclaims. After twenty minutes of feverish ranting, the piece ends quietly with tick-tock-ing percussion and distant, muted trumpet. Another fifty-three minute segment posthumously entitled, “I Roam the Cosmos,” starts out with a brief solo statement from Danny Davis followed by Tyson singing the newly composed “Astro Black” over a massively slowed-down “Love in Outer Space”-type groove. Soon after, Ra begins hectoring the audience about the usual subjects: race, outer space, and doing the impossible -- “Give up your death for me!” he insists at one point, with Tyson echoing virtually every word of his tirade. Meanwhile, the Arkestra noodles around on the two-chord vamp with Hadi and Akh Tal Ebah providing running commentary on trumpet and flugelhorn, respectively. Overlong, it does get a bit tedious, but Ra’s preaching is simultaneously terrifying and laugh-out-loud funny.
Universe in Blue is another one of those classic Saturn LPs which remains way out of print, originals commanding princely sums on the collector’s market. That’s a shame since this is one of the warmest, most approachable albums in the discography. ESP-Disk’ or Atavistic or Art Yard or some other perspicacious label should compile all this material together and reissue Universe in Blue in a deluxe, two-disc edition; I’m sure it would be a big hit.