February 22, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Out There a Minute (Restless/Blast First CD 71427)

Back in the early 1980s, when I was coming of age, hanging out with other weirdo musicians at the New England Conservatory, and discovering Sun Ra’s music for the first time, Ra’s records were extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find even in a big city like Boston. I managed to snag a couple of Saturn LPs while working at Strawberry’s Records circa. 1984 but they were totally unlabeled, extremely poor pressings, and contained a mish-mash of material recorded at various times and places. Or at least that’s how I remember them since I have no idea what the titles were; sadly, I later sold them in a fit of self-induced poverty and poor judgment. As the CD era dawned, contemporaneous recordings were issued on foreign labels like Black Saint (Italy), DIW (Japan), and Leo (France) while crummy-sounding bootlegs of the classic ESP recordings were also floating around the underground record shops. But for the most part Sun Ra’s vast body of work was shrouded in mystery. When the U.S. major label A&M released the crisply produced Blue Delight in 1988, Ra was suddenly something of a commodity and a steady stream of archival material began to flow in the 1990s.

In today’s instantaneous-information and media-saturated age, it might be difficult to imagine what a revelation it was when Out There a Minute appeared in 1989. Billed as “Sun Ra’s personal selection of rare Arkestra recordings from the late 1960s,” this CD allowed a glimpse into the darkest recesses of Ra’s most obscure period. But in typical Saturnal fashion, the packaging was devoid of liner notes beyond some cryptic Ra poetry leaving any definitive information as to dates and personnel merely inferred or totally unknown. That is until the efforts of Prof. Robert L. Campbell to compile a definitive Sun Ra discography began to circulate on the nascent internet. Thanks to Prof. Campbell (and the small but avid cyber-community of Ra fanatics), one could in the coming years finally piece together the murky history of Sun Ra’s Arkestra and gain an understanding of the material that appears on Out There a Minute. The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra was subsequently published by Cadence Jazz Books in 1994 and a greatly enlarged second edition (which I still need to purchase) was published in 2000.

So, it turns out that Out There a Minute contains several tracks that were later issued on CD in their proper album context on Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, When Angels Speak of Love (Evidence ECD 22216), and Night of the Purple Moon (Atavistic ALP 264) along with two tracks from the still-out-of-print Continuation LP from 1968. I will not consider any of these tracks here except to say that Atavistic needs to reissue Continuation pronto. The remainder of the CD consists of never released recordings, some of which derive from the Choreographer’s Workshop era and therefore fits chronologically into our discussion of these crucial early/mid-sixties sessions.

“Somewhere in Space,” “Dark Clouds with Silver Linings,” and “Journey Outward” were all recorded in 1962 and demonstrate Ra’s evolution from the more swing-based traditionalism of the Chicago era to the experimental, avant-garde music that first appeared on Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow and was perfected on Secrets of the Sun. “Somewhere in Space” is a lumbering two-chord march featuring Art Jenkins on “space voice,” actually wordless, improvisatory singing through an inverted ram’s horn (see Szwed pp.192-193 for the whole story). After a while, the horns enter with a simple, but affecting batch of riffs before each picking up small percussion instruments in support of a string of rather meandering solos: Pat Patrick on baritone saxophone, John Gilmore on tenor, Marshall Allen on flute. “Dark Clouds With Silver Linings” is a more conventional Ra original with a mid-tempo blues structure but with some typically unexpected harmonic twists. Gilmore states the melody and his tenor solos glide effortlessly through the weirdly bop-ish changes. Meanwhile, Ra explores some interesting two-handed counterpoint along with his stabbed comping. The ensemble sounds a little unsure of itself when it enters with the restatement of the theme, which yields some mild inadvertent dissonance before the close. “Journey Outwards” appears to be another early example of the conducted improvisations that would characterize this period’s most important work. It opens with Gilmore on mellifluous bass clarinet over softly mumbling drums. Then Gilmore drops out as the percussion builds into a polyrhythmic African groove. Al Evans enters with some mellow, richly melodic flugelhorn statements and Ra joins in with some angular piano figures before fading out. Very nice.

The title track, “Out There a Minute,” remains somewhat of a discographical mystery. According to Prof. Campbell, it could have been recorded at any time between 1962 and 1964, but to my ears it sounds very similar to the hissy, distant quality and subtly swinging combo feel of 1961’s Bad & Beautiful. In any event, it’s another patented off-kilter blues with some slippery piano work from Ra and a spirited Patrick solo on baritone saxophone. “Other Worlds” jumps ahead to the Magic City (Evidence ECD 22069) sessions of spring 1965, with a larger Arkestra and more aggressively avant-garde approach, but probably not recorded at the Choreographer’s Workshop (for one thing, it’s in stereo). Ra plays a quietly intense introduction on simultaneous piano and bell-like celeste before the Arkestra bursts in with a hard-driving atonal workout. Throughout the piece, Ra’s piano attack is every bit as ferocious as Cecil Taylor’s and the entire 11-piece Arkestra blows hot and heavy, tossing lines around with seemingly wild abandon. But repeated listens reveal a tightly controlled compositional integrity that packs the whollop of John Coltrane’s “Ascension” into a mere four minutes and forty-eight seconds. Incredible stuff. “Jazz and Romantic Sounds” probably dates from about 1969 given Ra’s electronic organ. Also, Gilmore is notably absent, but Marshall Allen and Danny Davis duke it out on alto saxophones while Ra conjures up the “space-age barbeque music” vibe similar to My Brother the Wind Vol. 2.

These never-before-released tracks make Out There a Minute a must-have proposition for the hardcore Sun Ra fan while the whole disc is full of prime cuts and a suitable introduction for the novice. Sadly, the CD is now out print although its widespread distribution means it’s readily available in the secondary market and well worth the effort to track it down. Essential.

Big thank you to Sam Byrd for helping me sort this stuff out!

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