August 9, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Astro-Infinity Arkestra: Continuation (Saturn ESR 520)

Originally released in 1970, Continuation contains a handful of experimental small group tracks recorded at the Sun Studio in 1968 along with two tracks with the full Arkestra recorded live at The East in Brooklyn, New York in 1969.

Side A begins with “Biosphere Blues,” a typically spaced-out blues, taken at a relaxed, almost somnambulant tempo. Interestingly, John Gilmore is probably playing drums on this home recording. After Ra’s piano introduction, Wayne Harris takes a nice solo on trumpet, his tone is warm and mellow, his note choices exquisite. Next up, Ali Hassan takes a single tasteful chorus on trombone. Then, Pat Patrick jumps in with an incongruously aggressive solo on baritone saxophone before giving way to Ra’s jaunty piano. A swelling space chord ends the piece with an odd dissonance. “Intergalaxtic Research” sounds as every bit as alien and forbidding as its title. Robert Barry plays the booming “lightning drum” with James Jacson on log drum and other unidentified percussionists who construct throbbing, asymmetrical cross-rhythms while Art Jenkins does his bit on space voice. Ra twiddles with his space organ and clavinet like a mad scientist, emitting random blasts of noisy timbres, dense, lurching chords, or rapidly spinning constellations of notes. This is a wonderfully strange piece.

The presence of Tommy Hunter and his echo-echo-echo machine on “Earth Primitive Earth” and “New Planet” makes me think these tracks were recorded prior to 1968. In fact, the overall ambience (and massively increased hiss) sounds like some of the Choreographer’s Workshop recordings (but this might just be wishful thinking). Both pieces pit Ra’s echoing piano against a skittering flute choir. On “Earth Primitive Earth,” Hunter plays some kind of metal scraper quite near the microphone, making for an unsettling, spooky atmosphere. “New Planet” takes the echo thing to a whole other level and Robert Cummings turns in another spectacular solo on bass clarinet (I am really starting to appreciate what a great player Cummings is on that most difficult and unwieldy instrument). Incidentally, both of these tracks appeared on the 1989 compilation CD, Out There a Minute (Blast First), although “Earth Primitive Earth” was slightly edited and re-titled “Cosmo Enticement” and “New Planet” was re-titled “Song of Tree and Forest,” presumably at the request of Sun Ra himself.

Side B contains the nearly continuous nineteen-minute live concert segment from 1969, and it’s a corker. “Continuation To” opens with the Arkestra already in full flight over sultry African percussion but Ra soon takes over with a roiling piano solo, full of booming left hand chords and scampering right hand clusters. After bringing things back down a bit, Akh Tal Ebah extemporizes on trumpet while Ra hints at ballad forms and hand percussion gurgles nervously in the background. Suddenly Ra produces a bouncy, repetitive figure and bass and drums join in for some good, old fashioned swinging. Ebah, a newcomer to the band since Sun Ra’s relocation to Philadelphia in the fall of 1968, manages to hold his own amidst the shifting musical landscapes and things really start to heat up when the Arkestra enters with big angular space chords, full of wiry clarinets and blatting trombones. But just as Boykins begins to solo, the track cuts off. “Jupiter Festival” picks up with the end of Boykins’s bass solo and he quickly moves to the fast walking to introduce “Second Stop is Jupiter.” Ra joins in and the Arkestra chants, climaxing with “all out for Jupiter!” A massive space chord erupts which melts into manic group improvisation. Gilmore emerges from the din with a lengthy, super-intense tenor saxophone solo, full of “sheets-of-sound” flurries of notes, heroically over-blown honks and squeals, and impossible multi-register leaps. Sun Ra prods things along with more furious piano, conducting brief entrances and exits of musicians while Gilmore continues to wail. The music finally simmers down a bit with the various horns exhaustedly sighing and moaning but with Boykins agitatedly scraping away with the bow. At one point, there is a tense, held note before the return of the busy piano figures after which screaming clarinets provide contrast against some sweetly melodious alto sax and rippling brass, with Jarvis propulsively pounding away in free rhythm. This deliciously complex texture continues on for some minutes before abruptly cutting off. Argh!

Nevertheless, Continuation is another fascinating album from a fertile, if spottily documented, period in Ra’s career and well worth hearing.


Good news! According to Amazon, Atavistic will be reissuing Continuation on October 6, 2009 as part of John Corbett’s Unheard Music Series. Rejoice!

1 comment:

Sam said...

I'm hoping that the Atavistic release will have additional material, hopefully more of the live stuff from which side 2 was taken.