August 23, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Astro Infinity Arkestra: My Brother the Wind Vol. II (Evidence CD)

In early 1970, Sun Ra returned to Variety Recording Studio with an enlarged Arkestra, including vocalist June Tyson. Tyson (b. 1936) had begun working with the band in 1968 at the recommendation of Sonny’s part-time manager, Lem Roebuck, but this is her first appearance on record. While Tyson was an integral feature of the Arkestra’s live concerts, with her lush singing voice and flowing dance movements, a woman’s full-time presence in the band posed some problems. Sonny considered her family since she was married to the Arkestra’s lighting designer, Richard Wilkinson, but Ra was patriarchal, if not downright chauvinistic in his attitudes: “I can’t create with women in my environment” (quoted in Szwed, p.250). Nevertheless, Tyson became a close confidant to Ra and remained a steadfast member of the Arkestra until her death in 1992.

She sings beautifully on the lilting space chant, “Somebody Else’s World” and on the slinky, jazz-funk number, “Walking on the Moon,” obviously written in response to Apollo moon landing in July, 1969. Ra also has another new keyboard in tow, a mellow-toned Farfisa organ (not a Hammond as I previously thought) which gives these tracks that “space-age barbeque” sound. “Otherness Blue” is another mid-tempo, off-kilter blues, featuring some tasty trumpet work from Kwame Hadi. “Pleasant Twilight” starts out as bright, swinging big-band tune, but a rubato section opens up space for Gilmore to blow sweetly on tenor saxophone before the melody returns at half-tempo to end. “Somewhere Else” begins with a fat, lurching riff over a stiff rhythm section, which eventually launches into some medium swing. Short solos come and go while the Arkestra tosses around variations on the opening riff. “Contrast” opens with some squeaking, honking baritone saxophone from Pat Patrick with Alejandro Blake jumping in with furiously plucked bass. Then Ra enters with some sustained, suspended chords and Marshall Allen wails away on oboe, the sound wrapped in think reverb (was Tommy Hunter present?) until fading out.

The remainder of the album is taken up with five brief synthesizer experiments, Ra having purchased a brand new Minimoog of his own. “The Wind Speaks” explores white noise and fluttering filter effects while “Sun Thoughts” focuses on sour intervals and swooping, sea-sick portamentos. “Journey to the Stars” uses the ADSR envelope filter to create wah-wah-ing attacks and swelling sustained notes while “World of Myth ‘I’” consists of knob-turning pitch-shifting. Finally, “The Design – Cosmos II” conjures up some resonant, bell-tone sounds, with increasingly busy atonal melodies scattered over a repeating bass note. While these tracks may sound a bit tentative, the Minimoog would become a fixture of Ra’s keyboard arsenal in the nineteen-seventies and most concerts would feature a lengthy synthesizer solo full of apocalyptic bombast. Unfortunately, My Brother the Wind, Vol. II comes across as kind of schizophrenic: some of this material is the most toe-tappingly accessible in all of the discography, but the Moog experiments are tough-going for even the most committed fan. Even so, this is an essential album and a necessary companion to Vol. I.


UPDATE: I neglected to mention another track found on Out There a Minute (Blast First CD) which was likely recorded at this session (or shortly thereafter). Entitled, “Jazz and Romantic Sounds,” it fits right in, with Ra’s bluesy, juke-joint organ, Marshall Allen’s impassioned solo and Patrick interjecting a honking riff here and there. It unexpectedly ends with a weird cadence and minute or so of spaced-out bliss before fading out. Nice.

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