September 18, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: The Singles (Saturn/Evidence 2CD)

Although the Arkestra was fairly active in 1975, with several known performances up and down the east coast and extended sojourns to the mid-west, it is one of the most sparsely documented years in the discography (see Campbell & Trent, pp.217-221). The Impulse! deal had pretty much run its course, with all the albums dumped into the cut-out bins and summarily deleted—so I suppose there was little incentive to make any more records during this period. Sadly, there are also very few “bootlegs” available to fill in the gaps.

Nevertheless, a live concert (possibly recorded on May 23) yielded a ten-minute track which was (briefly) issued as side-B of What’s New (Saturn 752), a hodgepodge record with a tortured discographical history. According to Prof. Campbell, matrix numbers and label texts vary and, in any event, most copies replace the original side-B with side-A of The Invisible Shield (Id. pp.218-219). Confusing? Yes. Well, don’t worry about it. The track fades up on the end of “Space Is The Place” and segues immediately into a hectoring Cosmo Drama (sometimes titled, “We Roam the Cosmos”). There are some amusing raps about Sun Ra bounding across the universe “using the planets as stepping stones” but the sound quality is extremely noisy and distorted, rendering it virtually unlistenable. Since there’s really not a whole lot going on musically, I see no real reason to go out of your way to locate this impossibly rare pressing (an amateur “needle-drop” can be found on CDR, if you’re really interested).

More intriguing are a bunch of unreleased Saturn singles, including “Things Ain’t Going To Be Like They Used To Be”, “Make Another Mistake” and a seven-minute version of “I’m Gonna Unmask The Batman” (Id. pp.217-218). None of these tracks were included on the Evidence CD set, but “Batman” circulates amongst collectors, albeit in the lossy MP3 format. Recorded live (possibly at the same concert as “We Roam The Cosmos”), it also suffers from grossly distorted sound as Ahk Tal Ebah (?) sings, shouts and screams into the microphone while the horns riff in the background. John Gilmore takes a loopy solo on tenor saxophone followed by—could it be? Walter Miller on trumpet! Maybe Prof. Campbell is wrong about Kwami Hadi’s presence on this, since the vocalist calls Miller out by name. It certainly sounds like him! Regardless, the super-funky drumming (by someone named “Freddie”) is the highlight of the track and he takes a killer drum break, ripe for the hip-hopper's sampler. Ra’s fascination with “The Caped Crusader” is somewhat inexplicable—maybe it was the campy costume—but this odd little ditty (written by Lacy Gibson and Alton Abraham) would be performed fairly regularly during the 1980s.

Finally, a typically quirky seven-inch single was released as Saturn 256 at the end of the year. The A-side features newly overdubbed vocals on the 1970 recording of “Love In Outer Space” (found on Night Of The Purple Moon). David Henderson croons the surprisingly sentimental lyrics about “love everlasting…love for everybody…love for everything”—and amazingly enough, it works! This is, of course, a classic track from one of the all-time great Ra albums and the vocals manage to add a touching sweetness that is truly unique. The flip-side, “Mayan Temple,” was probably recorded June 27, 1975 at Variety Recorders in New York and it’s an early version of what would later become known as “The Mayan Temples” (Id. p.221). Ra plays the loping, minor-mode bass line on MiniMoog, while scattering tinkly notes on the Rocksichord; meanwhile, Marshall Allen blows wildly keening oboe. What it lacks in melody and harmony is more than compensated for in spacey atmosphere, making for a subtly evocative record. Unfortunately, it fades out much too soon. Still, it's the perfect single and belongs in every hipster's jukebox.

In the coming weeks, we’ll listen to a couple of verité recordings (one of which is not listed in Campbell’s discography) with a detour through Ronnie Boykins’s solo LP on ESP-Disk’ before moving on to 1976, where things start to pick up considerably. Stay tuned.


Special thanks once again to drummer extraordinaire (and Sun Ra expert) Sam Byrd for providing me with a bunch of rare stuff I was missing—I couldn’t do this without his help!


Rodger Coleman said...

So, I'm now listening to The "New" Five Spot recording from June 11 (which is a remarkably decent-sounding bootleg), and I could swear that "What's New" track is taken from this show. Could it be this "New" Five Spot recording is from Ra's own stash? I'll have to compare them more closely...

Sam said...

Thanks for the kind words, Rodger--glad to help if it means I get to read your wonderful writing!

One note: I'm pretty sure the long version of "I’m Gonna Unmask The Batman" appears on the recent compilation "Rocket Ship Rock." At first I thought this was all reissues of what was already on the Evidence singles release, but in fact there are several unissued gems there...alternate takes of Yochanan stuff, and an extended version of the Lacy Gibson "Batman" single, and this 7-min. workout (which doesn't interest me so much, but still, it's there!).