October 31, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums: Cymbals & Crystal Spears (Evidence 2CD)

The deal with ABC/Impulse! was slowly bearing fruit: Astro Black (AS-9255) was finally released in early 1973, along with a batch of Saturn reissues, pushing Sun Ra’s music into the mainstream marketplace for the first time ever. And there were even bigger plans in store: as many as thirty reissues, and a sampler LP to be entitled, Welcome to Saturn. Then there was a proposed trilogy of new recordings made at Variety Recorders in New York and prepared for release in the then-trendy (and now horribly obsolete) Sansui QS-encoded Quadrophonic LP format: Cymbals (AS-9296), Crystal Spears (AS-9297), and Pathways to Unknown Worlds (AS-9298). Of these, only Pathways was ever released, in a vanishingly small pressing, just before the label pulled the plug in 1975. (See, Campbell & Trent pp.193-196; and Szwed pp.333-334.) The remaining titles remained the subject of intense conjecture until Evidence finally reissued them in 2000 (remixed to stereo from the original four-track masters) as The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums.

While Ra expressed some bitterness when the deal with Impulse! went sour (see Szwed p.333), according to producer Ed Michel’s liner notes, it turned out to be fairly lucrative for the Arkestra, at least in the short term. Furthermore, Michel points out that the contract was the result of some highly unorthodox negotiation techniques on the part of Alton Abraham:

A standard Artist’s Contract (“Everything You Have Is Ours…,” spelled out in some detail over seven pages) was presented. Alton put it in his briefcase, shook hands all around and said, “We’ll look it over and get back to you,” and they were gone. The following day, Alton was back with a retyped contract (no small stuff—this was well before personal computers—every single bit had to be typed by hand, overnight) in which the Saturnians—rather than engage in the point-by-point wrestling and mud-slinging match that constitutes most recording-industry contractual discussions—simply retyped the contract, turning everything on its head, with ABC, rather than Saturn, at the short end of the stick.

[…] The Head Lawyer called me (naturally, I was in the studio), and tried to explain The Inexplicable Behavior Of These People, and why it was Impossible To Try To Do Business With Them. I sort of suggested that maybe a counter-offer was in order (“Ridiculous! They’d probably want to turn that around, too”), and then, alarmed at the thought of my not being able to get in on any of the fun, I pointed out that if it wasn’t possible to make a New Recording Artist Deal, perhaps it might be possible to make a Licensing Deal for some of the already-issued Saturn “product.” Amazingly, it worked, although I still don’t know why or how.

[…] I never saw a copy of the original contract (I do have some deal memo notes, but recall that the contract proffered turned out to be a whole lot different), but I know it could have been drawn up rather succinctly: “Sun Ra and Alton will give ABC twenty-one masters, which ABC will clean up as well as possible, provide new cover designs, sit on for a while, then return to Sun Ra and Alton, in return for which ABC will give The Saturn Guys a bunch of money, including a nice payoff to terminate the original agreement.” Would have saved a lot of extra typing.

Newly made recordings were also subject to this licensing agreement, with ownership reverting to Sun Ra and Alton Abraham after the deal went south. This was actually fairly shrewd (and, at the time, extremely rare) although Sonny was unable to really capitalize on this cache of intellectual property during his lifetime. This was exacerbated by a dispute with Abraham over ownership of the masters that briefly split Saturn into two opposing companies (see, Szwed pp.338-339). Meanwhile, Sun Ra continued on his own way and would not make another record for a major label until 1988, when A&M offered him a two-record deal. Similarly, those records also went out of print almost immediately after their initial release. The Arkestra would remain an underground phenomenon, for the most part, right up to the end.

Curiously, three tracks meant for Cymbals were later issued on an obscure, hodgepodge LP entitled, Deep Purple (Saturn 485), but their connection to the unreleased Impulse! albums was unknown until Prof. Robert Campbell began his research for his monumental discography, The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (Cadence Books) (see p.194). As originally conceived, Cymbals was to have been another in a line of great blues-based records a la My Brother The Wind, Vol.II and Universe In Blue, with Ra leading a small-group Arkestra from his patented “space-age barbeque” organ. Significantly, Ronnie Boykins is back in the band with his huge-toned bass adding heft to these five loosely structured pieces. “The World of the Invisible” opens the album with some portentous spookiness, ghostly organ chords and a herky-jerky rhythm section supporting a serpentine bass clarinet solo by Eloe Omoe. Sun Ra hints at a descending figure on MiniMoog which is then taken up by Boykins in an extended bass solo, accompanied by Ra’s skittering organ. “Thoughts Under a Dark Blue Light” is a slow-burning blues, with a simple harmonized horn riff setting things in motion across its seventeen-minute duration. John Gilmore starts off with some authentically soulful roadhouse wailing on tenor saxophone, slowly building up to an astonishing climax of blurred multiphonics and low-register honks, before effortlessly returning with a bluesy coda. Yes, it’s another incredible John Gilmore solo! Ra then turns in some typically hermetic organ while Boykins steadily walks and drummer, Harry Richards, and conga-player, Derek Morris lackadaisically shuffle alongside. Alone in the trumpet chair for a change, Akh Tal Ebah delivers a long and thoughtful solo, his warm tone and smeared articulation offering a nice contrast to Kwami Hadi’s usual showy virtuosity. Sadly, the track fades out before being allowed to finish.

“The Order of Pharaonic Jesters” (sic) is another mid-tempo blues, dominated by Sun Ra’s multihued electronic keyboards, alternating between sweet-and-sour organ tones, shimmering vibraphone sounds, and the reedy Rocksichord. Really just a meandering jam, Ra keeps things interesting with his restlessly shifting timbres and sophisticated harmonic sensibility, Boykins following him every step of the way. The tempo picks up a bit for “The Mystery of Two,” a minor-key bebop confection that once again lets the spotlight shine on the underappreciated Ebah, whose introverted, melancholy sound and careful note choices yields an understated elegance. The album closes with “Land of the Day Star,” a quirky, stutter-step groove supported by Boykins’s awkward, bowed bass, Ra’s burbling keyboards and some herky-jerky drums. This time, Danny Davis gets a rare solo spot on alto saxophone, coming out from behind the shadow of Marshall Allen, who was apparently absent at this session. Again, the track fades just as the soloist starts to get going, which is a little frustrating. Nonetheless, this track—and the album as a whole—is really all about Sun Ra’s interaction with the masterful bass playing of Boykins and the almost amateurish drumming of Richards. It is this dynamic but unstable rhythm section that provides the cool, elusive mood of this fine record.

Crystal Spears (originally titled Crystal Clear) is something else altogether. If Cymbals is relatively earthbound, Crystal Spears is a rocketship ride to the planet Saturn, showcasing Sun Ra’s more experimental compositional techniques and radical orchestral strategies. A full contingent of Arkestrans is present, although Boykins is notably absent and no one steps in to play bass. It doesn’t really matter as Sonny is by now well used to this arrangement and fills out the space with his electronic keyboards and the addition of marimbas and multiple percussionists, while Clifford Jarvis’s return to the drum stool allows for a steadier, more intuitive rhythm section. The title track opens with piercing blasts of distorted wah-wah organ, indicating from the first moment that this is going to be one of those Sun Ra records that will fry your tweeters and blow your mind. Oh yeah. After sketching out a quasi-twelve-tone row, drums and congas enter with complex, overlapping rhythms while Marshall Allen plaintively reiterates the theme. Prof. Campbell states in his liner notes that Sun Ra subsequently moves to marimba at this point, but I believe it must be someone else, as, moments later, Sonny can plainly be heard playing MiniMoog and organ while marimbas continue to skitter in the background. In any event, a rich texture is created and sustained, similar to what was heard back in 1965 on the Heliocentric Worlds, Vol.1, thickened by an enlarged arsenal of electric keyboards.

Having reached a sub-orbital plateau, the Arkestra relaxes the tension a bit with “The Eternal Sphynx” (sic). Prof. Campbell suggests in his liner notes that this piece “continues the interlocking riff constructions found in Ra’s numbered ‘Discipline’ series of compositions” and the theme sounds vaguely familiar. Is it possible we’ve heard this before on one the many poorly documented tapes from this period? Perhaps (I really should create that spreadsheet—someone want to give me a grant?). In any event, it is similar to the “Discipline” series in its stately demeanor and expressive orchestration, the instruments playing at their most extreme registers, trumpets flatulently low, saxophones squealingly high, creating a lush yet unsettled ensemble sound. Danny Davis steps out once again with a soulful alto sax solo, followed by Ra on organ before a brief reprise, this time with Marshall Allen doubling on flute. Things start to get strange again with “The Embassy of the Living God.” Sun Ra’s woozy organ chords and Moog bass notes establish a creepy, dissonant soundworld, while the entire horn section, led by Danny Thompson’s honking baritone sax, execute the tricky composition, with both trumpets (distressingly off-mic), playing complex counter-melodies. The piece evolves organically from there, with solos, duos and trios from Allen on oboe, Omoe on bass clarinet, Gilmore on falsetto tenor sax, and Hadi in his usual highwire fashion. Percussion comes and goes along with Ra’s sea-sick organ, which takes the lead unaccompanied just before the horns return. Foregoing a restatement of the theme, the track fades out on some full-on group improvisation. Very interesting.

“Sunrise in the Western Sky” was intended to take up all of side B and essentially consists of a twenty-minute tenor saxophone solo by John Gilmore over the kind of gently floating, Afro-exotica percussion jam that Sun Ra was so fond of. That description makes it sound like it would be boring and self-indulgent, but in actuality, it is a monument to Sun Ra’s genius as a composer and Gilmore’s unheralded greatness as soloist. Opening with a magisterial statement from Allen’s yearning oboe, Ra’s chiming keyboards, mumbling marimbas, and burbling percussion establish an unsettled environment for Gilmore’s entrance. It appears that the saxophone part is at least partly written out as Sonny’s organ follows closely along the tonally ambiguous melodies. At about the eight-minute mark, Ra’s shapeshifting organ begins to coax the rhythm section into a duple-meter reverie while Gilmore follows along with more written material intermingled with extemporaneous improvisation. At the eleven-minute mark, Marshall Allen’s flute enters with a counter-melody and the texture subsequently thins out, leaving only percussion and saxophone. At this point, Gilmore loosens his grip on the theme(s) and begins to elaborate, weaving inquisitive lines, concluding with question marks rather than periods and finally disappearing into the hypnotic percussion ensemble. A crash cymbal is ceremonially struck seven times to end the album with a solemn finality.

Cymbals and Crystal Spears are indeed The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums and we should grateful to the folks at Evidence for locating the tapes and finally issuing them on CD. The Evidence label also rescued Pathways to Unknown Worlds from the dustbin of history and we’ll have a listen to that one next time. It's a doozy!


Anonymous said...

thanks for tying these two CDs in with the rest of sun ra and his impulse days - wonderful!!!

I-) ihor

Sam said...

Excellent analysis, Rodger! I got nothing to add except to say “Thoughts Under a Dark Blue Light” contains one of the all-time greatest of the greatest Gilmore solos. I love both of these albums. It's nice to hear some extended Eloe Omoe soloing on "The World of the Invisible." And Harry Richards's drumming is perfect for the subdued mood of much of "Cymbals"--no virtuoso grandstanding, instead just another emphatic, listening voice in the mix.