March 31, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: The Soul Vibrations of Man (Saturn LP)

If Unity presents the more approachable, trad-jazz side of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, the next item in the discography shows they were still capable of getting mighty strange during this period. Live recordings from the Jazz Showcase in Chicago in November 1977 were edited down and quickly released as Saturn LP 771, portentously titled The Soul Vibrations of Man (see Campbell & Trent pp.243-244). While original copies are extremely rare, it was reissued a couple of years ago on 180-gram vinyl by El Saturn Research, which is now, apparently, a part of Universal Music. It’s one of those weird and wonderful Saturn LPs, with a cryptically symbolic cover and a metaphysical disquisition on the back, presumably by Ra, regarding numerology, astrology and “The Dead Past.” In keeping with all that, no titles are given for the five tracks, instead, Side A is titled, The Soul Vibrations of Man Part I Volume VII” and Side B, “The Soul Vibrations of Man Part II Volume VII”. Okeydokey! Thanks to Prof. Campbell, Christopher Trent and Ahmed Abdullah, the individual tracks have been identified (Id.)—and it is an unusual set to say the least.

Side A opens with “Sometimes the Universe Speaks,” in its first known performance. Two flutes (Marshall Allen and Danny Davis) play a long, slow, folk-like melody, sometimes in unison and sometimes harmonized but mostly a cappella. After a couple of minutes, the melodies get freer while still coming together on pre-determined chords as the pitter-patter of percussion builds up underneath. Eventually, the melody ends and the drums take over, eliciting cheers from the audience. Suddenly, Ra interrupts with a homily: “Sometimes the universe speaks/And all is silence/Haven’t you heard how loud the silence has become lately?” This might have gone on for a while longer, but instead it quickly fades out. More unaccompanied flutes (possibly three or four) lead the way on the pretty “Pleiades.” According to Prof. Campbell, Danny Ray Thompson, Eloe Omoe and James Jacson all doubled on flute, so it’s possible they are all playing on these tracks. The side ends with “Third Heaven/When There is No Sun,” picking up in mid-sermon, Ra preaching about how “Uranus is the Seventh Heaven,” while the boys in the band echo his every word. Joking aside, this is actually one of the more enjoyable space chants to listen to, with less shouting and a more musical presentation. After a few minutes, Sonny moves to the organ and fingers some chords to introduce “When There is No Sun,” which June Tyson and the guys sing in splendid harmony.

“Halloween in Harlem” opens Side B, a lumbering march that lurches rather than swings, its dissonant harmonies and strained, wide-interval melodies giving off a campy, horror movie air. Michael Ray takes the first solo, his trumpet blatty and smeared, with Sonny following up with a brief organ solo before the return of the theme. Next is an untitled improvisation, with Ra’s organ outlining a ballad form while Ray solos. As the rhythm section quietly joins in, it almost sounds like Ra is playing definite chord changes—is this really an improvisation? Who knows? In some ways, this reminds me of “Taking a Chance on Chancey,” the improvised duet Ra would often play with Vincent Chancey on French horn. Of course, Ray is a very different player—brash and forceful—and he indulges a bit in his trademark echo-echo effect at the close, which gets the desired rise out of the audience. After a blaring space chord, the band launches right into “The Shadow World” and here’s where things get heavy. A series of outrageously intense, high-energy solos follow, with Allen and Davis on alto sax, Eloe Omoe on bass clarinet and, finally, John Gilmore, who shows them how it’s supposed to be done. An incredible display of multiphonic split-tones, altissimo squeals and other impossibly extended techniques; yes, it’s another amazing Gilmore solo! Then Sonny follows up with some wild, mad-scientist keyboards before the side abruptly ends.

Admittedly, the homemade sound quality is not that great, the edits are crude and the pressing is less than perfect—but The Soul Vibrations of Man is still a classic Sun Ra LP. The whole thing, from the crazy cover to the music contained in the grooves, has a deep, mystical vibe which neatly encapsulates Ra’s “mythic equations.” I say get it while you can.

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