June 12, 2011
Sun Ra Sunday
Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Sub-Underground (Saturn LP>CDR)
The appropriately titled Sub-Underground (also known as Cosmo-Earth Fantasy and Temple U.) is another super-rare artifact, badly in need of upgrade and reissue. Originally released as Saturn 92074 in late 1974, Prof. Campbell posits side one was recorded at Variety Recorders in New York City sometime in September while side two was recorded live at Temple University in Philadelphia, possibly on September 20 (Campbell & Trent p.214-215). Yet, as usual with Sun Ra, there is much confusion and uncertainty regarding the details of this recording and, after careful listening, I’m not sure I agree with our discographer in all respects. Unfortunately, the sound quality is somewhat murky and my less-than-perfect transfer of the original LP does not help to clarify much. Despite (or perhaps because of) its difficulties, Sub-Underground a fascinating record.
Side one is taken up with “Cosmo-Earth Fantasy,” an epic, twenty-two minute improvisation, obviously recorded in the studio. It begins with Arkestra scrubbing, scraping and plucking a variety of zithers, harps, guitars and other “Strange Strings” while Ra strums the interior of a piano. I love it! Enervated bass octaves come and go. Is this electric bass? (Prof. Campbell thinks so.) Or is it Ra on some sort of keyboard? Maybe—it’s hard to tell. Anyway, the spacey exotica goes on for about seven minutes before Ra fingers an ominous chord sequence on Clavinet, signaling Marshall Allen to pick up the oboe and echo Ra’s insistently repeated figures. Sonny continues to hold down a pedal point and outline upper-register harmonies while Allen keenly elaborates on the simple theme. Just lovely. Then the oboe drops out and there’s more “bass,” with what sounds like a melodica wheezing around the corner. At the half-way mark, a high-pitched marimba (Ra?) starts clattering away, Chinese-style, eventually joined by Allen on flute. Then the texture starts to thicken (possibly through the use of overdubbing) as multiple flutes, “bass,” Clavinet and percussion build up a spiky, Messiaenic din. Wild! After some slow, held chords, the piece comes to a definite, satisfying conclusion. Prof. Campbell lists additional instrumentalists, including John Gilmore on tenor sax, Eloe Omoe on bass clarinet and (possibly) Dale Williams on guitar (Id.), but I just don’t hear them on this track. Regardless, “Cosmo-Earth Fantasy” is a classic.
Side two begins with “Love Is For Always,” another impossibly romantic piano ballad featuring Gilmore’s creamy and delicious tenor saxophone—yes, it’s another incredible Gilmore solo! This beautiful Ra composition was, apparently, only performed one time. What a shame! The distant and boomy drums indicate it was indeed recorded live, although, curiously, any applause has been deftly edited from the end of the track. “The Song of The Drums” shares the same reverberant acoustic, and the eponymous drums are almost impossible to hear. Eddie Thomas [Thomas Thaddeus] vocalizes in an absurdly eccentric patois, later joined by another male vocalist (possibly Akh Tal Ebah—but it doesn’t really sound like him) while Ra alternates between bright, major-key comping and ominous Morse code messaging on Rocksichord. It’s sort of interesting, but ends inconclusively. Finally, the album concludes with “The World Of Africa,” which sounds to me like it was recorded in studio (possibly at the same session as “Cosmo-Earth Fantasy”), with its comparatively clear and dry ambience (but who knows?). June Tyson and Cheryl Banks wordlessly intone a repeating melody over a two-chord Clavinet vamp and percussion and while the hypnotic 6/8 groove is suitably enchanting, it fades out after only a few minutes, breaking the spell too soon. Oh well.
Sub-Underground is a weird and wonderful record. Certainly, “Cosmo Earth Fantasy” is one of the great long-form improvs, notable for its unusual instrumentation and “Love Is For Always” is also beautiful and unique. While the other tracks are perhaps less essential, they are interesting vocal experiments well worth hearing. Let’s hope Art Yard or some other intrepid label will rescue Sub-Underground from its willful obscurity.