Sun Ra: Astro Black (ABC/Impulse! LP)
According to the jacket of Astro Black, Sun Ra’s first new recording for ABC/Impulse! was made at “El Saturn Studio” in Chicago on May 7, 1972, but that date is questionable since the Arkestra was just leaving California in May -- and the studio name is “strictly mythic” (Campbell & Trent p.186) Whatever the date or actual location, it was clearly made in a professional recording studio as the sound quality is exceptionally good. Sun Ra was obviously determined to take advantage of the mass exposure a major label could bring, producing one his finest albums. Notably, Ronnie Boykins makes a welcome return on bass after a long absence and he is prominently featured here, driving the band to great heights. The Arkestra is augmented with both Akh Tal Ebah and Kwami Hadi on trumpets, Charles Stephens on trombone, Alzo Wright on violin and viola, along with several conga players, who give much of this record its avant-exotica feel. But Boykins’s clearly inspires Sonny and his fluent explorations on organ and synthesizer throughout the album demonstrate a consummate mastery of electronic instruments. Astro Black is, in my opinion, one of Sun Ra’s crowning recorded achievements.
A radical re-arrangement of the title piece opens the album with June Tyson’s lugubrious singing supported by Sun Ra’s swooshing synthesizers, a pointillist horn chart, and Boykins’s stuttering bass groove. After the vocals subside, a thoughtful improvisation follows featuring a woozy synth duetting with Boykins on the bow, the horns eventually entering with some energetic episodes of free jazz blowing. After a few minutes of controlled chaos, Tyson reprises the lyrics and Sonny ends the piece with more spacey synthesizer noises while Boykins continues to saw away in the uppermost registers of his instrument. Nice. A brief rendition of “Discipline 99” again demonstrates Boykins’s ability to provide a rock-solid rhythmic and harmonic foundation on this obliquely swinging composition. Ra provides some glistening, tremulous vibraphone and the ensemble sounds tight and well-rehearsed with individual soloing kept to a minimum, thereby turning in a note-perfect reading. Boykins again leads the way on “Hidden Spheres,” spinning endlessly inventive variations on the hypnotic three-note ostinato over the percussionists’ simmering, semi-exotic groove. On top of all this, John Gilmore contributes a pithy but harmonically adventurous statement on tenor saxophone before Hadi’s wide-ranging trumpet solo and Eloe Omoe’s honking bass clarinet which concludes the piece.
All of side two is taken up with a nearly twenty-minute conducted improvisation entitled, “The Cosmo Fire,” which ranks up there with the other great long-form pieces in the discography such as “Other Planes of There,” “The Magic City” and “Atlantis.” While only loosely structured, Ra is totally in control, directing the band from behind his bank of “mad scientist” keyboards, signaling space chords and drawing out various sub-ensembles that come together and mutate while soloists enter and exit at his command. This extended piece is not as overtly episodic as the aforementioned previous experiments and instead builds up a cumulative momentum with Marshall Allen’s delightfully quacking and squealing oboe an almost constant presence within the restlessly shifting instrumental textures. The oboe is not an instrument you hear much in jazz except for Marshall Allen and here he distantly evokes the ancient Middle Eastern nay amidst all the cosmic afro-futurism and “out jazz” blowing. Allen is an underappreciated virtuoso on this difficult, rarely heard instrument. And again, Ronnie Boykins’s inimitable bass anchors the proceedings with an effortless élan which allows the rest of the band to freely take flight. Really, Boykins’s playing on this album is quite remarkable -- even for him -- and his unifying effect on the band is obvious and thrilling. Too bad he could not commit himself full time to Sun Ra.
It’s also too bad that, within three years, the purportedly “lucrative” deal with ABC/Impulse! went sour and the label unceremoniously dropped Sun Ra from the roster and promptly deleted all the albums (which included a number of reissued Saturn titles). To add insult to injury, Astro Black has never been re-issued on CD or otherwise, despite the label’s continued exploitation of other perhaps less-worthy “New Thing” titles in its catalog. It boggles the mind that this classic album is still out of print. Accordingly, original copies in good condition are extremely hard to find and fetch astronomical sums from collectors. That is really a shame as it truly is one of the finest records in Sun Ra’s discography.