June 28, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Nothing Is (ESP-Disk’ 4024 CD)

In May of 1966, the fledgling ESP-Disk’ managed to book a package tour for some of its artists under the auspices of Bernard Stollman’s Esperanto Foundation, who had somehow finagled financial support from the New York Council for the Arts to spread the ESP musico-philosophy to the denizens of various New York State public colleges and universities. The musicians included Sun Ra and the Arkestra, Ran Blake, Patty Waters, Giusseppi Logan and Burton Greene and much of the music was recorded and later released on ESP-Disk’. Nothing Is, released in 1969, captures the large-format Arkestra at the top of its game during this tour, bravely navigating conducted improvisations while also swinging hard on the jazzier numbers and otherwise bursting into space-chanting and polyrhythmic percussion freakouts ¬ it is the perfect soundtrack for the inspirational but imminently doomed counter-cultural revolution then at its peak in the wake of the Summer of Love, Woodstock, and widespread demonstrations of dissent. On the surface, Sun Ra’s music seems to fit right in with the outrageous sounds of the psychedelic era, but as has been noted, Ra’s politics were more complicated and quasi-authoritarian than might be expected. Ra’s ideal was not freedom, but discipline. Even John Sinclair had to admit: “We knew he was a dictator, but at least he was a benign dictator” (quoted in Szwed, p. 245).

Perhaps that is why, unlike much of the music of this period, Nothing Is still sounds fresh and not like a hopelessly nostalgic curio from a distant past. In fact, it still sounds like music from the future. One can only imagine what those college students thought about it at the time; surely many minds were blown. Nothing Is became a defining album for Sun Ra and, as with the Heliocentric Worlds albums, Nothing Is was widely bootlegged after ESP-Disk’s dissolution. I’ve owned various versions of this record: an Italian boot CD in the late eighties; the heavily No-Noised German ZYX CD circa. 1990; the better-sounding Dutch Calibre CD released in 2000; and now, the expanded 2005 edition on the resurrected ESP-Disk’. While the 2005 reissue includes almost thirty minutes of bonus material (and improved sonics), the tracks are disconcertingly rearranged. This album is indelibly etched into my brain through decades of repeated listening, so it was something of a shock the first time I heard the new CD. Upon reflection, it does seem likely that this rearrangement better reflects the running order of Ra’s sets of the time, but somehow the intensely visceral impact of the original is slightly diffused. Ra took great care in the construction of his albums and while additional, previously unreleased music is always welcome, I will probably keep my older CD containing the record as it was originally released, just for reference.

Be that as it may, Nothing Is is definitely one of the all-time great Sun Ra records and an essential document of the period. Highlights include a jaw-droppingly stunning Gilmore solo on the twisty post-bop composition, “Dancing Shadows,” the definitive performance of the insanely complicated “Shadow World,” and an evocative rendition of “Exotic Forest” featuring Marshall Allen’s serpentine oboe over that menacing 5/4 ostinato. Interspersed are brief space chants and songs (“Theme of the Stargazers,” “Outer Spaceways Incorporated,” “Next Stop Mars” and “Second Stop is Jupiter”), enormous, universe-engulfing space chords, and terse, densely compacted group improvisations. As for the bonus tracks, “Velvet” is an old-timey swing vehicle for Pat Patrick’s honking, squealing, and growling baritone saxophone, with pithy trombone and piano solos snuck in before the closing reprise. “Outer Nothingness” is fifteen-minutes of delirious, “New Thing” styled free jazz, marred only by an overlong drum solo by the irrepressible (and overindulged) Clifford Jarvis. (N.B. In a lazy bit of titling, this track bears little to no relationship to “Outer Nothingness” as found on Heliocentric Worlds, Vol.1.) A truncated “We Travel the Spaceways” ends the disc with a premature fadeout that feels somewhat anticlimactic. With or without the bonus material, Nothing Is is a must-have album for any Sun Ra fan and, truthfully, it belongs in any serious collection of post-war jazz.

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