November 14, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Astro Infinity Arkestra: Pathways to Unknown Worlds + Friendly Love (Evidence CD)

Pathways to Unknown Worlds
was released by Impulse! in 1975 but was soon deleted along with the rest of the catalog licensed from El Saturn Records. That meant literally cutting off the corners of the jackets and dumping the remaining stock below wholesale, thereby cutting off Sun Ra from any royalties that would have otherwise been due (see Szwed p.333). For a brief period in the mid-1970s, Sun Ra records could be found in the sale bins of mom-and-pop record stores across America, but they quickly disappeared for good and, by the end of the end of the decade, had become rare, expensive collectables. It wasn’t until the Evidence label began reissuing Sun Ra’s music on compact disc in the early-1990s that Ra’s most obscure discography was again readily available. In 2000, Evidence concluded their reissue campaign with the resurrection of two Great Lost Sun Ra Albums recorded for Impulse! which were originally conceived as part of a proposed trilogy that would have progressed from earthy blues of Cymbals (AS-9296) through the hyper-modern jazz of Crystal Spears (AS-9297) and on to the improvised outer-space music of Pathways to Unknown Worlds (AS-9298) (see Campbell & Trent pp.194-196).

Shorn from its intended context, Pathways to Unknown Worlds must have appeared a puzzling artifact for the very few people who heard it back in 1975. Mixed to primitive Quadrophonic Sound, almost no one owned the expensive Sansui QS decoder and extra pair of speakers required—and those who did probably wondered why it was being deployed for a mere twenty-seven minutes of skronky free-jazz-noise (even so, I would be very interested in hearing these original “surround sound” mixes!). In 2000, Evidence remixed the album to stereo from the multitrack tapes and, in the process, discovered an additional (untitled) track that was omitted from the original LP, expanding it to a (slightly) more reasonable thirty-four minutes of music.

The pieces on Pathways to Unknown Worlds are all “guided improvisations,” with Sun Ra directing the flow of music from his bank of electric keyboards. Ronnie Boykins is back, anchoring the proceedings with his rock-solid bass, accompanied by the indomitable Clifford Jarvis on drums, who plays with admirable restraint here. This was by far the most fluent and supple rhythm section Ra would ever enjoy (sadly, it was intermittent at best and ultimately short lived). Joined by a full complement of horn players, this was an Arkestra particularly sensitized to Ra’s vision and well suited to realize his most exploratory music.

A blow-by-blow description seems rather pointless; I can only say that the music is a model of tightly controlled chaos and this album stands with the best of that lineage of long form improvisations, like Magic City and Other Planes of There. Sun Ra disdained the excesses of the “free jazz” scene and his group improvisations are as thoughtfully constructed as any of his written compositions, full of startling dynamic contrasts and unusual instrumental textures, fueled by his own endlessly inventive approach to electronic keyboards. Kwami Hadi is present on trumpet joined by Akh Tal Ebah on mellophone (a cross between a trumpet and a French horn), making it possible to really compare them side-by-side. Sometimes, Ebah shoves a contrabassoon reed into the mouthpiece to create the “Space dimension mellophone,” rendering an earth-shattering blast of sound akin to the Neputunian libflecto (a bassoon with either a French horn or alto saxophone mouthpiece attached).

Eloe Omoe is given especially prominent solo space throughout the album, allowing an opportunity to fully appreciate his richly expressionist bass clarinet in a variety of settings. Omoe’s story is interesting: born Leroy Taylor (1949-1989), he was a member of a Chicago street gang until 1970, when Sun Ra took him in and changed his name (see Szwed p.280). While his frantic overblowing shtick was a constant feature of the Arkestra’s live gigs during this period, he was, in fact, a gifted auto-didact, and his playing here shows a remarkable versatility.

John Gilmore comes through with one of his typically mind-melting tenor saxophone solos on “Cosmo Media,” but this album isn’t about individual soloists or group freakouts. The Arkestra is literally Sun Ra’s living instrument, their highly individualistic voices subordinated to his stringent yet benevolent command. Accordingly, this music cannot be said to be freely improvised; it is rather composed by Sun Ra in the moment of its realization. If anything, Boykins is the star of the show, the glue that holds it all together; there is hardly a moment where he is not furiously thrumming or bowing away with astounding facility and invention. Yet Pathways to Unknown Worlds is also not merely a concerto for bass; it is a thoroughly ensemble conception, with the whole being much more than the sum of its parts—hence the pointlessness of a detailed description. Together with The Great Lost Albums, these are some of the crowning achievements of Sun Ra’s long recording career and need to be heard to be believed.


Four more LPs were recorded by Saturn and offered to Impulse! as part of the proposed licensing deal, but were rejected. Across the Border of Time (Saturn 576), Flight to Mars (Saturn 547) and Tone Poem (Saturn 672) were never released, although Prof. Campbell has speculated that tracks from some of these records were cannibalized for later Saturn releases, such as the ultra-rare Song of the Stargazers (Saturn 487) (see Campbell & Trent pp.196, 270-271). However, while preparing these Evidence CDs, the two-track reel-to-reel tapes containing the long-lost Friendly Love (Saturn 565) were found in a box and issued for the first time, appended to Pathways to Unknown Worlds.

Unfortunately, Boykins is once again absent but the laconic Harry Richards returns on drums along with Atakatune (Stanley Morgan) on congas and they provide a relaxed, contemplative rhythmic feel throughout. Lacking formal titles, the album is presented as a suite in four parts, and while Prof. Campbell suggests in his liner notes that these are all guided improvisations, I’m not so sure: Sonny’s organ often seems to be outlining pre-ordained chord sequences and parts one and four settle into the kind of dreamy, modal grooves that were a hallmark of Sun Ra’s compositions during this period—in fact, the horns play a repeating, five-note figure towards the end of the suite that was obviously written out and harmonized. It may be possible the Arkestra was merely “jamming out” on this date, but I kind of doubt it. In any event, the soloists are exceptional: Hadi and Ebah each deliver delightfully contrasting brass excursions and Danny Davis is featured throughout on alto saxophone. Danny Ray Thompson even coaxes some surprisingly tender melodies from the unwieldy Neptunian libfliecto. But Gilmour’s tenor sax solo on part four is the real standout, an especially soulful, bluesy meditation seasoned with astonishing extended techniques and punctuated with pregnant silences. Yes, it’s another incredible John Gilmour solo. Get used to it!


Exact dates and locations for all these recordings are unknown, but Prof. Campbell’s research indicates they were likely made in early-to-mid-1973 at Variety Recording Studios in New York City (and I have no reason to doubt him):

As on so many recordings done for Saturn, the mythical “El Saturn Studio” in Chicago is given as the location on the Impulse jacket. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it’s wisest to assume that [Sun Ra’s] studio recordings during the 1970s were made at Variety (and if [James] Jacson, who was living in New York City and often not touring with the band, is really present, that would make Variety even more likely [since he had connections there]). (Campbell & Trent, p.196)

Clearly, Sonny had high hopes for the Impulse! deal and spent much of 1973 in the studio, going so far as to prepare a handful of seven-inch singles for the El Saturn label. Indeed, with the release and widespread distribution of the brilliant Astro Black and the reissue of a number of classic Saturn LPs, Sun Ra’s fortunes were looking up: the Arkestra would make its triumphant return to Carnegie Hall in July, in a concert recorded and broadcast by Voice of America, and the fall tour of Europe was, by any measure, an unqualified success. It wasn’t until 1975 that things fell apart with Impulse! and Sun Ra returned to the “sub-underground.” Nevertheless, his reputation was firmly established amongst the hip-jazz cognoscenti and new records would continue to pour forth from Saturn and various independent labels, like breadcrumbs on an intergalactic space trail. His music was treated with near-reverential respect abroad and foreign sojourns would become constants of the Arkestra’s life, grueling itineraries that barely managed to provide a modicum of financial security for the band.

Meanwhile, back home, “The New Thing” fad gave way to slick, commercial fusion by the late-1970s and the band worked where and when it could, crisscrossing the country playing dingy nightclubs, outdoor jazz festivals, and any colleges or universities that would have them. For the most part, Sun Ra’s music was met with indifference or, at best, a bemused skepticism—and in some quarters, he provoked outright hostility, summarily dismissed as charlatan, a fake. By the 1980s, with much of the discography long out of print and/or impossible to find, Sun Ra’s music was shrouded in mystery, his live show an anachronistic circus act, wildly out of step with the neo-conservative times exemplified by Wynton Marsalis and his ilk.

Thankfully, the invention of the compact disc has since allowed Sonny’s vast output of incredibly obscure recordings to be heard once again. Moreover, the rediscovery of these “lost” albums offer profound insight into Sun Ra’s unique musical genius in its full flowering, at its most ambitious. Hopeful of a better world realizable in sound, Sun Ra sincerely thought he could change the world, and in some not-so-small ways, he did. These albums are essential documents of one of the Twentieth Century’s most widely misunderstood and underappreciated masters.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

> meant literally cutting off the
> corners of the jackets

and / or drilling holes in the corners... the 'cut out' bin at the record store was always worth a look see. you could find albums you were looking for, or, albums that were 'interesting' and cheap enough to buy.

I-) ihor