Sun Ra & His Solar Myth Arkestra: Life Is Splendid (Alive!/Total Energy CD)
On September 9, 1972, Sun Ra and His Solar Myth Arkestra performed for more than 12,000 people at the First Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival, conceived and produced by the Sixties counter-cultural icon, John Sinclair. The suitably eclectic bill included, among others, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Junior Walker & The All Stars and the legendary Howlin’ Wolf. The proceedings were recorded by Atlantic Records and a 2-LP sampler of the festival (including an edited version of Sun Ra’s “Life Is Splendid”) was released in 1973 as Atlantic SD2-502 (and later reissued as ATL 60058) (See Campbell & Trent, p.189). I have not heard this record but it should be noted here that the Art Ensemble’s set was also released by Atlantic and entitled, Bap-Tizum—it is excellent.
Sadly, the original 16-track masters were lost in a fire, leaving only this two-track reference tape of Sun Ra’s performance which was finally released on CD by Sinclair’s Alive!/Total Energy label in 1999. The sound quality is not great, but it’s not terrible either—certainly way more listenable than many of the audience recordings we’ve been listening to lately! Unfortunately, the tape is incomplete: According to Sinclair’s liner notes, the first several minutes of the set are missing because “a proper mix could not be achieved.” Given the 20+ member size of the Arkestra, I’m sure it was a challenge! It’s a pity since we’re apparently missing the usual opening improvisation and the (possibly) more exploratory material performed that evening. The Arkestra’s sets had by this point become somewhat routine-ized with the latter half of the set devoted to cosmical space-chants, singalongs, and dance/percussion workouts. Quite a spectacle, I’m sure—but not always compelling listening (or maybe I’m getting tired of this project).
Anyway, another annoying thing about this CD is the total absence of indexing; it’s just one thirty-seven-minute long track, making it impossible to isolate the individual compositions. Put it on and you’re committed. Oh well, so it goes with Mr. Ra's records. The tape picks up with the usual “Enlightenment”, complete with flute choir and muted trumpets accompanying June Tyson and the Space Ethnic Voices. Despite the unbalanced sound, you can tell the Akrestra is luxuriating on a spacious stage in front of a large, receptive audience. But Ra keeps an accordingly tight leash on the band, making sure they deliver a carefully choreographed version of the “Cosmo Drama” for mass consumption. This is probably to be expected given the heightened circumstances (and after all, Ra's music was about discipline), but it results in a less than totally satisfying recording.
Sonny’s gritty organ self-propels the afro-space-groove of “Love in Outer Space” but doesn’t go on long enough to get airborne. “Space Is the Place”, other hand, is much more expansive, exuberantly sung with lots of squealing horns and Ra’s spacey barbeque sauce holding it all together. The conducted improvisation that follows contains everything you could want from a Sun Ra jam: roiling drums, battling altos, a jaw-dropping Gilmore blow-out, and some super-freaky electronics from Sun Ra—but hyper-compressed into a handful of minutes. “Discipline 27-II” supports a series of pontifical declamations, including “What Planet Is This?”, “Life Is Splendid” and “Immeasurable” delivered with a stagey theatricality. The full-bodied Arkestra sounds supremely confident on the languid, flowing arrangement, improvising laughing riffs here and there in response to the hysterically antiphonal vocals. But again, Sonny cuts things short with a dissonant organ cluster to signal the inevitable “Watusi.” The Arkestra swings right into full-throated statement of the head but then it’s the standard percussion workout led by Lex Humphreys and (mysterious multi-instrumentalist) Azlo Wright on drums (Jarvis is notable for his absence at this high-profile gig.) The clattering and banging, dancing and carrying on is allowed to build up a good head of steam but Ra suddenly cues up another bit of out-there improv before a cursory verse of “Outer Spaceways Incorporated”, sung by Tyson. Some rocketship synthesizer noise ends the set amidst shouts of “Space is the Place” and thoroughly enraptured cheering and applause.
Despite its flaws, Life Is Splendid is a welcome (if fragmentary) document of Sun Ra’s historic appearance at the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. The sound quality is decent and there are several fleeting moments of truly inspired music-making to be found here. Who knows, it might even be a great introduction for the novice with its concise and flawless executions of Ra’s working repertoire of the time. But to me it sounds almost too restrained, too self-consciously playing to the crowd, never letting things get too "out."
Then again, maybe I’m just getting tired of this project, or at least tired of the rather repetitious and bad-sounding live recordings we’ve been listening to recently. Fortunately, dear reader, Sun Ra returned to the recording studio in the fall of 1972 and dropped two-LPs of amazing material. The deal with Impulse! was starting to bear fruit and some of the most outrageous music of Ra’s career would be forthcoming. So, I can’t stop now—in fact, I can’t wait to get into it. But I cannot keep up a weekly schedule and hope to do this music justice. So Sun Ra Sunday will continue with poetry and videos for a few weeks while I get my ears around this next phase in Sun Ra’s multi-faceted career. Stay tuned.