December 12, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: The Singles (Evidence 2CD)

In 1974, at the height of the Impulse! deal, the resurrected Saturn label released two seven-inch 45-RPM singles, in an effort, perhaps, to capitalize on the major label’s support and media exposure. Crudely manufactured in small batches, they were sold from the bandstand or to certain favored record stores for cash on the barrelhead, making them extremely rare and highly-prized collector’s items today. Thankfully, the Evidence label has collected all the known Saturn singles onto two CDs, making these weird and wonderful sides available to all. As usual, the discographical details are sketchy, but we can rely on Prof. Campbell’s research and speculations to fit them into the chronology.

“I’m Gonna Unmask the Batman”/”The Perfect Man” (Saturn ES 537)

Continuing Sun Ra’s odd infatuation with Batman and Robin the A-side is a remake of the Lacy Gibson/Alton Abraham ditty first recorded for Repeto in 1968 (without Sun Ra’s involvement). This version “I’m Gonna Unmask the Batman” was probably taken from a live broadcast at WXPN-FM in Philadelphia on July 4, 1974 under the auspices of Hal Wilner (see, Campbell & Trent pp.209-210). The vocalist is Sam Bankhead (who appeared in the Space is the Place movie) and there’s a small complement of riffing horns while Sonny provides the bass-line on his reedy RMI Rocksichord. Despite the silliness of the tune, Sun Ra would return to it again and again in concert, making this, I suppose, the definitive version.

The flip side is something else altogether: In his liner notes to The Singles collection, Prof. Campbell suggests that “The Perfect Man” may be Sun Ra’s “most perfectly realized synthesizer performance.” A particularly captivating space-rock-boogaloo driven by Sonny’s boing-ing MiniMoogs, the head is tightly arranged for the tangy ensemble of Marshall Allen’s oboe and John Gilmore’s tenor sax. Probably recorded at Variety in May 24, 1973, the “Micro-Ensemble Unit” actually sounds surprisingly well rehearsed and polished on this almost-pop-worthy confection (despite the amateurish drumming of Danny Davis). Very interesting.

“Journey to Saturn”/”Enlightenment” (Saturn ES 538)

Saturn ES 538 focuses on two of the common space-chants from the repertoire. “Journey to Saturn“ is taken from an unknown live performance circa. 1972-74, as indicated by the unbalanced and overamplified sound. Clifford Jarvis swings hard on drums and Gilmore and June Tyson duet while Sonny churns out some gritty organ accompaniment. After a bluesy solo from Ra that veers off into distant keys, Tyson returns briefly a cappella. The B-side is yet another remake of “Enlightenment,” a song that obviously meant a lot to Ra. Recorded at the House of Ra in Philadelphia sometime between 1970 and 1974, this stripped down version is really quite affecting. The tempo is slow and deliberate, held together by Gilmore’s remarkably supple drumming and Sonny’s orchestral clavinet playing. Gilmore and Tyson sing with full-throated sincerity and, even though Gilmore drops his sticks at one point, he never loses a beat. The lo-fi, homemade quality of the recording only adds to the charm—this one has that inimitable “Saturn Sound.” A nice rendition of this sometimes overplayed song.

1 comment:

Sam said...

I love Danny Davis's drumming on "The Perfect Man"! It's a large part of what makes that loopy track work. Dig the horn line. This is a real groover, and Gilmore's solo is apt and stunning.