August 8, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Space Is the Place (Blue Thumb/Impulse! CD)

Hoping to capitalize on the impending release of the movie, Space Is the Place, producer Ed Michel brought the Sun Ra and his Arkestra to Chicago’s Streeterville studios to record an eponymous album for the Blue Thumb label on October 19 & 20, 1972. In all, enough material for four albums was cut on these dates although only two were ever issued (see Campbell & Trent pp.189-192). Blue Thumb LP BTS 41 was released in 1973 and reissued on CD by Impulse! in February 1998. Why Impulse! chose to release this instead of their own (arguably superior) Astro Black remains a mystery to this day. Still, Space Is the Place is an (almost) great album, cunningly compiled to represent the panoply of Sun Ra’s music from swing to bop to free-jazz to outer-space chanting and beyond.

By 1972, sixteen-track recording was becoming more common and it is apparent from the side-long title track that Ra (and/or producer Michel) was keen to take advantage of this new technology by the use of overdubbing and elaborate stereo mixing strategies. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work as the whole album was no doubt hastily completed during these two marathon sessions. One can picture Sun Ra and his crew manning the board, turning the mix into another performance, track faders flying. Sonny wields an array of electronic keyboards, including squiggly organ, buzzing Rocksichord and uncharacteristically cheesy Moog portamentos. Danny Ray Thompson holds down the bari-sax riff while Pat Patrick dons the electric bass to support June Tyson and a full complement of Space Ethnic Voices on this signature anthem. To keep things interesting, the rhythm section brings things to an intermittent boil and the horns occasionally wail with wild abandon. But after about fourteen minutes, the mix begins to lose focus and the incessantly weird vocalizing just gets annoying, finally coming to an end with some inconclusive keyboard noises. Sure, it’s fun in that sort-of-psychedelic way, but not altogether satisfying compared to other iterations in the discography.

Side two is more compelling, beginning with the revival of “Images,” a Sun Ra original dating back to 1959’s Jazz in Silhouette (Saturn/Evidence). This joyful swing number (with Ra on acoustic piano!) provides an opportunity for Kwami Hadi and John Gilmore to show off their fluent dexterity navigating the highly chromatic chord changes. Ra himself even turns in a tastefully understated chorus at the end. The reappearance of this tune signals the broadening of the Arkestra’s stylistic palette that was beginning to occur to encompass pre-war jazz amidst all the trappings of pan-African-futurism. “Images” would thenceforth become a regular feature of the live set. “Discipline 33” follows in an intricate arrangement for low reeds, flutes and trumpets with a meandering melody that floats above the tonally ambiguous harmonies and languid rhythm. It’s just lovely—and a perfect example of Ra’s sophisticated and adventurous approach to structure and orchestration.

“Sea of Sounds” is one of those frantically hare-brained big-band rave-ups taken at an impossibly fast tempo that a well-oiled Arkestra manages to nail with unflagging energy and precision. As the rhythm section continues to cook, Akh Tal Ebah contributes a mellifluous flugelhorn solo surrounded by rude libflecto grunts and crazy alto saxophone scribbles. Meanwhile, Ra’s gurgling and wheezing organ drives the band into super-intense, out-jazz territory. All this chaos gives way to a neatly choreographed saxophone battle, with Gilmore emerging on top of the start-stop rhythm section. A somewhat awkward edit cuts into Ra’s patented “mad-scientist-style” organ solo before Hadi’s high-register fireworks heralds the reprise of the taut and twisted theme. A splash of smeared harmonies brings things to a decisive close. Awesome. The album concludes with a quick romp through an old standby, “Rocket Number Nine.” Sonny obviously saw some latent commercial potential in this song as he recorded it several times, first back in 1960 and even releasing a small-group version on a Saturn single around 1967 or 68. Now presented with the opportunity to reach a (potentially) large audience, Ra was sure to end the album with a tight rendition of this enervating space-chant. Taking advantage of the multi-track environment, this version is densely layered with overdubbed vocalizing, clattering percussion and swooping synthesizers. Much too strange for radio play, it is still an appropriately entertaining conclusion to a typically quirky Sun Ra album.

Ultimately, Space Is the Place is a mixed bag with the overlong title track unable to sustain interest across its twenty-one and a half minutes. But side two contains outstanding performances of some of Sun Ra’s more interesting compositions, which, combined with the hi-fi stereo sonics of the recording, make this is a must-have album for the hardcore fan. Others who are curious about what this Sun Ra obsession is all about may find it a useful and easily obtainable introduction and a pathway to unknown worlds. Space is, indeed, the place—and Sun Ra can take you there.


Sam said...

I have to part ways a little bit on you in terms of the title track here, Rodger--I think it's highly successful, and easily one of the all-time best versions of this Ra chestnut. The whole piece develops as if Ra and the Arkestra have all the time in the world, and as you immerse yourself in it as its languid pace washes over you, you start to have that time too--or is it space that you have? Space is indeed the place. If not endlessly fascinating, it's at least compelling all the way through. I love the way all of its myriad facets--the synth, the vocals, the horns--are orchestrated and controlled, with Ra's superb sense of restraint and spaced-out momentum.

Side 2 is of course the true masterpiece, but the title track more than holds its own, and is way more successful than the other side-long chestnut from these sessions, "Discipline 27-II" (coming up soon, I hope!).

Rodger Coleman said...

Sam, I agree with you that the title track is much more successful than "Discipline 27-II!"