January 8, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Cosmos (Cobra/Spalax CD)

While on their fourth tour of Europe in August 1976, the Arkestra (a portion of it, anyway) entered Studio Hautefeuille in Paris to record an album for the French Cobra label, which released later in the year as Cosmos (COB 37001). I originally wrote about this album way back in 2009, when I first started posting Sun Ra Sunday (and before I started the chronological assessment) and this is what I had to say:


According to Robert L. Campbell’s discography (1st ed.), this LP was also issued on Musicdistribution 60005 and Inner City IC 1020 shortly after the original Cobra release. It was first re-issued on compact disc by the French Buda label (82479) but the original CD apparently suffers from a boomingly bass-heavy mix. This 1999 issue on Spalax purports to correct that deficiency - but I’m not so sure; it sounds lopsided still, with prominent electric bass and distant drums. Regardless, this is one of my very favorite Sun Ra records.

The sonic imbalances no doubt have to something to do with the cramped quarters of the recording studio. According to French horn player (!), Vincent Chauncey, the Arkestra was reduced to a core group of twelve musicians for this session due to the limited space (Campbell (1st ed.) p.73). Oh, but what a group! Along with Chauncey, Ra’s faithful stalwarts, John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, Danny Davis, Danny Thompson, Elo Omoe, and Jac Jackson fill out the reed section while Ahmed Abdullah plays sensitive, tasteful trumpet and the incredible Craig Harris virtuosically holds down the trombone chair. The rhythm section consists of R. Anthony Bunn on (nice, but overloud) electric bass, Larry Bright on (barely audible) drums, and, of course, Sun Ra himself on the electric Rocksichord. Caught in the midst of a European tour, the Arkestra sounds well-rehearsed, at the top of their game.

But as great as the band sounds on this date, it is Ra’s electric keyboard that makes this such a delightfully engaging record for me. Throughout the album, Ra’s Rocksichord has this weird, wire-thin, reedy sound quality, upon which he pours some molasses-thick phase-shifter that hisses away incessantly in the background. Now, in anyone else’s hands, this would be unbelievably cheesy, even amateurish. Yet Ra guilelessly tackles the wide variety material and, through his visionary technical abilities, miraculously balances the seemingly limited electronic keyboard textures with the expansive, acoustic Arkestra to create a decidedly strange, but appropriately otherworldly ambience. Ra’s ultra-spacey keyboard turns tracks like “Interstellar Low-Ways,”, “Moonship Journey,” and “Journey Among the Stars” into dreamy, nearly narcotic reveries. Even the more straightforwardly big-band-ish tracks like “The Mystery of Two,” “Neo Project #2,” and the aptly-titled “Jazz From an Unknown Planet” are transformed by Ra’s swooshing, buzzing Rocksichord. The brief title track stands out as a vehicle for another classic John Gilmore solo on tenor saxophone atop an intense Arkestra arrangement, but overall the mood is pretty and mellow and perfect for a Sunday evening.


Not really too much to add except to update the citation to the second edition of the discography (Campbell & Trent p.225). It is a curious feeling coming back to this record after three years (!) of listening to what came before. While it is like visiting an old friend, I now hear Cosmos as clearly a minor effort compared to many of the classic albums of this period. It’s an odd mixture of remakes of older material combined with newer, swing-oriented compositions that is less than totally satisfying, like a slightly off gig. But it remains a favorite record of mine, if only for Sonny’s blissfully phased-out Rocksichord sound. The “narcotic reveries” of “Interstellar Low Ways”, “Moonship Journey” and “Journey Among The Stars” are the standout tracks in that regard, and are essential listening, in my opinion. Cosmos is worth seeking out for those tracks alone; everything else is just a bonus.


93curr said...

I can't guarantee that the Spalax CD sounds identical to the Cobra LP (I only ever owned the Inner City vinyl, sadly) but it definitely is a major improvement over the dreadful Buda CD, which sounded like a vinyl transfer from a particularly bad record through a cheap ceramic cartridge with a quarter taped to the headshell and with the bass on the preamp racked up to "11". There's also a CD edition on P-Vine. I'd be curious if anyone has ever compared it to the Spalax.

(I was also hoping someone would have chimed in with an opinion about the P-Vine vs. the Inner City CD editions of 'Live At Montreux' in an earlier post)

Rodger Coleman said...

@93curr - Thank you for your comment! I think I heard the Inner City copy many years ago, but can't really remember how it sounded compared to the Spalax, which actually sounds pretty good. I would also be curious to hear about any differences in the P-Vine editions of these records. It used to be that Japanese editions were almost always better, but that is not the case so much in the digital era.