Sun Ra: In Search of The Space Chord
Last issue, we saw how Sun Ra's vast catalogue was finally being granted the restoration and digital makeover it deserves via the spectacular Mastered for iTunes project being carried out by his Music Archive director Michael D. Anderson and writer-music historian Irwin Chusid.
The Ultimate Guide Part III
by Kris Needs
Initially mainly focusing on the '50's and '60's, the pair have set up the Enterplanetary Koncepts label to release 24-bit transfers from the original analog tapes which Anderson has been archiving since he was appointed tape librarian by Ra in the late '70's. Original tapes have been restored and corrected, tracks reinstated to full length with some in stereo for the first time and previously unreleased tracks added; all thoroughly annotated with vintage covers restored.
Even with this masterful new re-direction, Ra's catalogue could still look like an impossible mountain too high to even dare the foothills so I endeavored to list key releases from throughout his life and beyond as both beginners guide and entertaining roundup for more weathered space travelers. In part one, we left Sun Ra and the Arkestra leaving the Sun Palace in New York City's East Village, where they had spent most of the '60's. Their new domain was alto saxman Marshall Allen's father's large house on Morton Street in the declining Germantown section of Philadelphia, which remains the Arkestral home and HQ to this day.
Part two picks up at the dawn of the '70's. Man had landed on the Moon the previous year and Robert Moog had invented a new gizmo called the synthesizer. Maybe the rest of the world was starting to catch up with Sun Ra's visions...
The Night Of The Purple Moon (Saturn 1970; Atavistic 2007)
Fun-packed curio credited to Sun Ra and his Inter Galactic Infinity Arkestra but actually just the man on his Mini Moog and Rocksichord in prime space noodle mode, plus Danny Davis on alto and clarinet, electric bassist Stafford James and tenor man John Gilmore on drums!
Space Probe (Saturn 1974; Art Yard 2008)
Space Probe first appeared amidst the chaos of an initial run of Saturns released in the early '70's, finally solidifying as a three-track LP consisting of the epic title blowout and two sparse hand drum outings recorded at Choreographers Workshop on April 29, 1962 ('Earth Primitive Earth' and 'The Conversation Of J.P.'). The monolithic title track was recorded in August 1969 as a first test run for Ra's new Moog synthesizer when he got it home. Typically, this quickly ballooned into more than a few squirty doodles as, for 17 minutes, he reflected a spaceship scouring outer space looking for a landing place. As many have said, the synthesizer (especially the huge early models which looked like a spaceship's control panel) could have been invented just for Sun Ra. Art Yard's reissue saw the original album joined by offcuts from the Secrets Of The Sun sessions.
The Solar Myth Approach Volumes 1 & 2 (BYG 1975; Atom 2005)
Ra gave these recordings to BYG/Actuel after he didn't make it to make Belgium's 1969 Festival Actuel. Captured in NYC around 1970-71, the Solar-Myth Arkestra stretch around galactic themes and invoke fearsome cosmic behemoths on "The Utter Nots," Ra showing his increasing mastery of his Mini-Moog on several interstellar overdrive tear-ups. Although jazz-rock had now caught on to synths, Ra was the one really trampling barriers between the two forms of music, while continuing to take music into unchartered realms.
Nuits De La Foundation Maeght Volumes 1 & 2 (Sandar 1971; Recommended Records 2003)
In August 1970, Ra took a nearly 20-piece Arkestra to debut in Europe at France's Fondation Maeght museum, St-Paul-de-Vence, as captured on these two vibrant volumes. The Arkestra on full beam sufficiently impressed promoters to land a full tour, including UK dates in Liverpool and London (the Queen Elizabeth Hall is documented on Transparency's bootleg Live In London 1970). Black Myth/Out In Space (Motor City, 1998) comprises two German festival sets at Berlin and Donaueshingen.
The Creator Of The Universe (The Lost Reel Collection Number One) (Transparency 2007)
First actual release on the press-anything-and-bugger-the-legalities but often valuable Transparency was drawn from Ra's Spring 1971 trip to the University of Berkeley, whose African American Studies Department invited him to be artist-in-residence as a major first move by the hard-fought for new Ethnic Studies department. For three months, Ra taught a course called 'The Black Man in The Cosmos,' lecturing before an Arkestra or his keyboard performance. He caused a sensation, embraced by black, hippie and new age communities, going on to mesmerize San Francisco and Southern California, living in Oakland with Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers, while also influencing the likes of Frank Zappa. The shows introduced a new series of complex, numbered compositions called 'Disciplines,' which eventually numbered over a hundred.
The Creator Of The Universe stands out for the sparsely-experimental San Francisco warehouse show from June, 1971 (including 20 minutes of declarations peppered with volcanic space chords), while disc two features one of Ra's lectures. Another Transparency CD called Intergalactic Research captures a looser, spacier Arkestra at Berkeley's Native Son and unidentified 1972 show featuring Ra on Moog overdrive.
Nidhamu (Saturn 1971; Art Yard 2009)
After playing Denmark in December 1971, Ra spontaneously decided to visit Egypt, without arranging anything or knowing anyone there (predictably getting problems at customs for the name on his passport!). While he fulfilled his ambition to visit the pyramids, the Arkestra hooked up with writer-musician Hartmut Geerken, who kicked them off with a paying gig at his house, followed by a Cairo TV concert and shows at the Ballon Theatre, American University and Versailles Club. Recordings made from the visit originally appeared on Saturn as Live In Egypt, Dark Myth Equation Visitation and Horizon. The first two make up Art Yard's Nidhamu set, showing the Astro Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra magnificently rising to the occasion as drummers pulse under sepulchral horn ensembles on stellar performances including a hypnotic "Friendly Galaxy," three "Discipline" excursions and radically different "Space Loneliness," plus Ra's synthesized conversations with the Pharoahs on the epic "Nidhamu" itself.
Soundtrack To The Film Space Is The Place (Evidence 1993); Space Is The Place (Blue Thumb 1973; MCA 1998)
While in Oakland, Ra was approached by producer John Coney to make a documentary for PBS, resulting in Space Is The Place, which captured his philosophies, humour and music in suitably surreal style. Featuring the Arkestra and actors, it's draped in B-movie/blaxploitation/biblical epic ambience as, traversing the universe in a spaceship fueled by music, Ra finds a planet suitable to revive the black race, returning to Earth to land in 1972, while battling with mega-pimp the Overseer who, along with the FBI and NASA, send him back to space after he offers black people an 'alter-destiny'. Production was tortuous, the heavily edited film sneaking out and disappearing fast, destined to be a cult classic. Evidence unofficially released the soundtrack in 1993 - nothing to do with the album of the same name (featuring the 21 minute title track) recorded in Chicago in October 1972 and released by Blue Thumb.
Wake Up Angels: Live At The Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972-73-74 (Art Yard 2011)
Sun Ra enjoyed a special relationship with Detroit after playing there with the MC5 in June, 1967 at the Community Arts Auditorium on Wayne State University. When they returned in May-June 1969 to play the Detroit Rock and Roll Revival with Chuck Berry, the MC5 and Stooges at the invitation of Five manager John Sinclair, they stayed next door to the large Victorian house occupied by the band and White Panther party members. The MC5 were major fans, having used Ra's "There" poem as launch-pad for their own "Starship" on Kick Out The Jams. In September 1972, the (Solar-Myth) Arkestra were invited back by Sinclair to play opening night of the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in front of 12,000 punters, their biggest U.S. crowd yet. They turned the place out, flitting between space chants, squalling chaos and Ra's synth assaults. The date led to further dates around the world and return appearances at the next two Ann Arbor festivals. Sinclair licensed tapes of these performances to Alive/Total Energy, including 1972's Life Is Splendid, 1973's Outer Spaceways Employment Agency and 1974's It Is Forbidden, all three contributing to Art Yard's stupendous Wake Up Angels: Live At The Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972-73-74; which cataclysmically chronicles Ra's triumphs in the home of high-energy rock 'n' roll.
Astro Black (Impulse! 1972; Mastered For iTunes 2014); The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums (Evidence 2000); Pathways To Unknown Worlds (Evidence 2000)
In a concerted effort to put his music on the map, 1972 saw Ra's ill-fated liaison with ABC's Impulse!, foremost label for new jazz pioneers such as Coltrane. Ra prepared 30 reissues and recorded four new albums but, for various reasons, the deal lasted only two years before being guillotined by money men, sending the Impulse/Saturn titles which were released to the cutout bins. 1973 was to have seen new albums Cymbals, Crystal Spears and Pathway To Unknown Worlds. While the first two were never released, the third sneaked out in the deal's dying days and a fourth lay hidden.
But there was also the transcendental Astro-Black, which has never been reissued until this years Mastering For iTunes campaign. Originally released in quadrophonic sound, the album boasted four synth-splattered space jams beautifully underpinned by Ronnie Boykins' bass, 'Bugs' Hunter's featherlight drums and batteries of percussion, overlaid with firefly brass vapour trails and skronkarama. June Tyson's voice uncurls the main theme of the title track over swelling aural jazz orchestra ocean led by Ra's synthesized submarine, while side two consisted of just an 18 minute intergalactic blowout called "The Cosmo Fire."
Two 'lost' albums finally saw release on Evidence in 2000. Recorded at Variety, Cymbals intoxicatingly detours into surreal lounge vamps led by Ra's night-stalking organ and woozy brass, with titles like "Order Of The Pharoanic Jesters." Recorded at the same session with percussively-expanded band, Crystal Spears featured pre-written compositions, Ra wielding electronic vibes and Mini-Moog on shimmering dream processionals lashed with spectacular shooting solos from an uncaged Gilmore.
Pathways To Unknown Worlds (one of the four Saturn master tapes offered to Impulse! which never got chosen) featured similar lineup on guided improvisation, highlighting Boykins' unerring bass dexterity on outings such as the subterranean title track, climaxing with the major freak out of "Extension Out." The Evidence reissue pairs the album with the previously-unknown Friendly Love. With no drummer or bass, congas lead the luminescent way on a four part suite based on cued in improvisations.
Concert For The Comet Kohoutek (ESP-Disk 1993)
On December 22 1973, Ra and the Arkestra played New York Town Hall in celebration of a comet which brushes the Earth every 127 years. The gig was sponsored by ESP-Disk, which subsequently released the set's mixture of staples and Space Is The Place music which would dominate shows for the next two years. They had toured Europe again in September, 1973, including Paris' Olympia and Gibus, captured on Live In Paris At The Gibus (French Atlantic, reissued Universe, 2003). Ra was starting to feature swing standards in the live shows, here throwing in a spirited take on Fletcher Henderson's 'King Porter Stomp'.
The Antique Blacks (Saturn 1974; Art Yard 2009)
Recorded in Philadelphia in August 1974, The Antique Blacks featured Ra's newly-introduced vocal expounding [somewhere between preaching, rapping and lecturing], often expanded on by June Tyson and the Space Ethnic Singers. It's one of his more outstanding '70's creations, mixing Latin jams, calm-to-storm instrumentals and Ra's calm space philosophising on tracks such as "There Is Change In The Air."
Dance Of The Living Image (Transparency 2007)
Another missive from Transparency's Lost Reel series, taken from a December, 1974 rehearsal in San Francisco, boasting standards "Sometimes I'm Happy" (hallucinogenic with jagged discords and far out Ra vocal), Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," old time ensemble whoopee on Charles L. Bates' "Hard Hearted Hannah," a sublimely loose brass shuffle called "Passin' Gas" and gorgeous slow "Watusi."
Live In Cleveland (Leo 2009)
Wildly on-form Arkestra captured in Cleveland on January 30, 1975. The clap-a-long "Astro Nation (Of The United World In Outer Space)" chant leads into an ebullient, percussion-heavy set of Ra standards, highlights including his expounding on "I, Pharoah," circuit-singeing synth solo [with early rhythm box under-pulses] and spirited romp through "Sophisticated Lady." Dale Williams's bubbling electric bass virtuosity is wildly to the fore throughout.
Live At Montreux (Saturn 1976; Universe 2003)
Originally a Saturn double album, this record of the Intergalactic Cosmo Arkestra at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival has been called one of the best live sets ever captured. Ra and the 15 piece band are on fire, blazing through standards and an incendiary take on Duke Ellington's "Take The A Train." Ra's performances are among his most forcefully dynamic on record and the Arkestra are roaring.
A Quiet Place In The Universe (Leo 1994)
A Quiet Place In The Universe fleshed out tracks already released on Leo's A Night In East Berlin with the whole concert, thought to be from early 1977 in the U.S. The Arkestra are low-key and multi-layered, the title track a dense, reflective brass-flutes carpet (including Vincent Chancey's French horn), "I, Pharoah" another extended Ra cosmo-drama (as also heard on the late '70's Saturn album of that name) over elements of "Friendly Galaxy Number 2," while "Images" typifies the duets Ra would play with Chancey during his late '70's stint with the Arkestra.
Cosmos (Cobra 1976; Spallax 1999)
Cosmos presents a sumptuously textured Paris date recorded at Paris' Studio Hautefeuille in August 1976, drummer Larry Bright giving the music the lightly-driven swing which characterizes tracks such as "The Mystery Of Two" and "Neo Drift," which harks back to 1950's workouts [coated in hazy space mist]. 'Interstellar Low Ways' gets a sparkling Rocksichord-draped new take, while the perfectly-titled "Moonship Journey" unveils a new chant. Maybe best summed up by the song title "Jazz From An Unknown Planet."
Solo Piano Volume One (Improvising Artists; Improvising Artists CD 1992); St Louis Blues: Solo Piano (Improvising Artists; Improvising Artists CD 1993)
Having mastered the synth, Ra returned to the piano, recording Solo Piano Volume One at a New York studio on May 22 1977 at the invitation of free jazz pianist Paul Bley for his Improvising Artists imprint. Ra beautifully reworks standards such as "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" and "Yesterdays," along with his own compositions. This was swiftly followed by St Louis Blues: Solo Piano, recorded at Axis-in-Soho as part of the Newport Jazz Festival that July, again mixing standards such as the boogie-woogie title track with his own.
Some Blues But Not The Kind That's Blue (Saturn 1977; Atavistic 2008)
Although joined by a full Arkestra, Ra stuck to piano on the unreissued Saturn Somewhere Over The Rainbow (recorded in Bloomington, Indiana in July), and Some Blues But Not The Kind That's Blue [Saturn 101477], recorded at NY's Variety studio on October 14, 1977. Ra again reinterprets the jazz songbook, including "My Favourite Things" (with Gilmore flying) and "Nature Boy."
Unity (Horo 1978)
A roaring 1977 show at New York's Storyville sees Ra taking the Arkestra back to big band roots on organ and Rocksichord, finishing with "Halloween in Harlem" and "My Favourite Things." The following month's gig at Chicago's Jazz Showcase provided two Saturn albums, schizophrenically split between racing between galaxies on The Soul Vibrations Of Man (debuting the funereal "When There Is No Sun" chant) and standards on Taking A Chance On Chances (debuting trumpeter Michael Ray, straight from backing the Stylistics).
Piano Recital: Teatro La Fenice, Venezia (Leo/Golden Years Of New Jazz 2003)
Ra gave a mesmerising solo concert at the Teatro La Fenice, Venezia in 1977, unleashing an outrageous display of piano pyrotechnics on anything from his topsy-turvied classics to ravishing treatments of "Take The "A' Train," the dazzling intro to "Penthouse Serenade" swooping past Cecil Taylor in the fast lane before gliding down to the lounge.
Disco 3000 (Saturn 1978; Art Yard 2007) Media Dreams (Saturn 1978; Art Yard 2004)
Still charting self-imposed diversions, Ra took a quartet to Italy in January 1978, his Crumar Mainman wonder-organ joined by Gilmore, Ray and drummer Luqman Ali. The quartet's concerts and studio dates produced a clutch of fascinating, often widely differing albums. New Steps and Other Voices, Other Blues (including ballads and another "My Favourite Things") were recorded at the Horo label's studio for their release, while The Sound Mirror, Disco 3000 and Media Dreams were released (along with rare single "Disco 2100"/"Sky Blues") on Saturn. For years, Philly's Third Street Jazz store was the only place to get these new custom-made Saturns, sold C.O.D. by the regularly visiting Arkestra. Media Dreams, named after the studio, is a remarkable exercise in spacing out, the three musicians letting Ra forage and stretch, sometimes weighing in beautifully for their own solo flights. Confusingly, improvised space-floater "Of Other Tomorrows Never Known" appeared on The Sound Mirror then unedited on this album's reissue. Disco 3000's reissues started with the truncated vinyl version before 2008's double CD recording of whole Milan concert on January 23, when the band played behind a screen showing Space Is The Place. For the concert, Ra hauled out his awesome Crumar Mainman and rhythm box, which he used like a rave DJ on the 26 minute title track, which sounds like Suicide-go-techno on the speed-percolating "Dance Of The Cosmo Aliens" (actually built around "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child").
Languidity (Philly Jazz; Evidence 2000)
1978 also saw Ra record the Visions team-up with Walt Dickerson for the vibraphonist's Steeplechase Records and landmark Languidity, recorded in a single marathon session at Bob Blank's Blank Tapes in New York. Ra was considered a major figure in the city's post-punk movement and recorded the latter's hazy beauty in one of its spawning ground epicenters with renowned producer Bob Blank. The album introduced a rarely multi-tracked Arkestra playing decidedly languid, unusually funk-flavoured grooves, Ra's new Fender Rhodes shimmering and starbursting with Dale Williams' guitar, floatation horns (including trumpeter Eddie Gale) droning and swelling on the title track's morning skyline serenade, while "Where Pathways Meet" and "Twin Stars Of Thence" see the Arkestra reconstructing jazz-funk with hallucinogenic sprawl. The woozily whispery "There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You Of)" ranks among Ra's greatest spatial tone paintings. Released on local radio engineer Tom Buchler's nascent Philly Jazz label, the initial run [sold at an Atlanta college show] came with just a photocopied Ra pic stuck on the plain cover.
1978 also saw Philly Jazz release Of Mythic Worlds, recorded live in Chicago 1968. Released on Sweet Earth (reissued on Universe), The Other Side Of The Sun comprised swing-centric recordings made at NY's Blue Rock Studios in November 1978 and January 1979, including serene treatments of standards "Flamingo" and "The Sunny Side Of The Street," plus a dreamy lounge crawl through Ra's "Manhattan Cocktail" and funky take on "Space Is The Place." There were more solo or trio outings, including Saturn's with 1979's God Is More Than Love Can Ever Be and 1980's solo Aurora Borealis.
On Jupiter (Saturn 1979; Art Yard 2006); Sleeping Beauty (Saturn 1979; Art Yard 2005)
On Jupiter's dreamy trio of space-jazz escapades were channeled through a 20-piece Arkestra, although "UFO" was closest Ra got to disco, riding Steve Clarke's electric bassline (hijacked by downtown genius Arthur Russell for Loose Joints' NY club smash "Is It All Over My Face"), its disarming chorale fondling new stratas of jazzed-out space-funk, dropping to a pastoral whisper on the beautifully-controlled 17 minutes of "Seductive Fantasy." Almost a sister album, Sleeping Beauty plumbs similar lush furrows with mellow chants stroking "Door of The Cosmos" and languorous melancholy of "Springtime Again."
THE '80's AND '90's
By the '80's, the Arkestra were touring the world and recording incessantly, releasing albums on a variety of labels, including a welter of Saturn's (never reissued). Maybe these are best dealt with as a broader overview...
Strange Celestial Road (Rounder) again centered on a massed Arkestra sifting rich textures behind chants, including the perennial "I'll Wait For You" signaling freeform liftoff. I Pharoah (Saturn) saw the concert fave given a whole side, Ra ruminating on the Egyptian people and immortality over drums and flutes while the chants get more disembodied. There was also Live At Soundscape, its concert disc joined by a Ra lecture on the first DIW pressing.
1981 Saturn releases included Aurora Borealis, Beyond The Purple Star Zone and Oblique Parallax. The last two captured the Omniverse Jet-Set Arkestra at Detroit Jazz Center in 1980, a return booking from Ra devotee Rick Steiger after they sold out the city's Recital Hall the previous October. One show turned into a six-day, eleven performance residency, running from Boxing Day to New Year's Eve. The whole stint, with core Arkestra joined by a stream of guest musicians and dancers, was released by Transparency on 28 CD's!
A February 1980 Swiss show, released by hat Hut as Sunrise In Different Dimensions is a fabulous snapshot of peak Arkestra, balancing standards ("Cocktails For Two," "Round Midnight," "Take The 'A' Train," "King Porter Stomp") with originals, the reliables joined by outings such as "Disguised Gods In Skullduggery Rendezvous" and "Pinpoints Of Spiral Prisms."
Alarmed by 1979's Three Mile Island nuclear accident (close to Ra's Philly HQ), Ra wrote the call-and-response shuffler "Nuclear War," presaging political rap with lines like, 'Nuclear war/It's a motherfucker/Don't you know/If they push that button/Your ass gotta go.' Recording at Variety in September 1982, Ra believed he had a hit here, so he approached Columbia Records. After they declined, he sold it to Dick O'Dell's Y Records, home of the Slits and Pop Group, who released Ra's first 12-inch single, c/w June Tyson's vibrant take on standard "Sometimes I'm Happy." The planned Nuclear War album on Y Italy mixed more songbook faves ("Smile," Ellington's "Drop Me Off In Harlem") with Ra originals such as "Retrospect," "Celestial Love" and "Nameless One Number 2." Without proper distribution, it became an instant rarity but Ra cheekily placed its tracks on two albums released on his Philly version of Saturn, Saturn Gemini: A Fireside Chat With Lucifer (with its epic title track) and Celestial Love.
The Arkestra returned to Egypt in 1983, recording Sun Ra Meets Salah Ragab In Egypt (Leo), a joint venture between Ra and the composer with the Cairo Jazz Band. Ra used tracks from November 1983 Montreux shows (part of a week's European sortie where his Sun Ra All Stars included Allen, Gilmore, Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Lester Bowie, Philly Joe Jones and Clifford Jarvis) on two Saturn volumes of Stars that Shine Darkly, adding tracks from other gigs, including the 14 minute pipe organ solo "Hiroshima" (which became title track of both volumes released on the same set). There were also three volumes of Live At Praxis '84, recorded at the Orpheus Theatre, Athens that February and released on Greece's Praxis imprint.
In 1984, UK label Recommended Records released Cosmo Sun Connection, mixing piano blues jams and organ shenanigans with band blowouts, recorded live in the U.S. that year. A mainly standards December session in Milan produced Reflections In Blue and Hours After for Black Saint, showing that the Arkestra were still unbeatable playing their version of straight jazz. In early 1986, Ra and the Arkestra recorded three Cab Calloway-style tracks with singer Phil Alvin of the Blasters for his Unsung Stories album on Slash. In 1986, the two giants of modern sonic exploration, Ra and John Cage, were invited to play the Coney Island Museum for the new Meltdown Records. Both supplied individual pieces, Ra accompanied by dancers, and released the results as John Cage Meets Sun Ra (reissued 1997).
In January 1988, the Arkestra played New York's Knitting Factory, reportedly doing mad sets which saw Ra driving the band to match his intensity on new or improvised material and the weirdness compounded by Art Jenkins' intoning through a metal megaphone. The shows would comprise the last two Saturn albums, Hidden Fires Vols I & 2, which were only sold at gigs so that they became instant collectables. Only "My Brother The Wind" and "Sun #9" resurfaced on Leo's second CD pressing of A Night In East Berlin. In complete contrast, Ra's next project was covering "Pink Elephants On Parade" from Dumbo for Hal Wilner's Stay Awake various artists set of Disney covers for A&M. Ra diligently studied the movie, identifying with its lonely elephant, suitably enthralled enough to teach the Arkestra an entire set of Disney tunes to take on tour as the Disney Odyssey Arkestra, mouse hats and all. Such a performance was recorded in Austria in April 1989 and released on Leo as Second Star To The Right (Salute to Walt Disney), where it's possible to hear the Arkestra squeak and bellow through such classics as "Heigh Ho!," "Someday My Prince Will Come" and "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah."
The Arkestra made their first visit to Japan in August, 1988, recorded in riotously jaunty, big band form on Cosmo Ominiverse Imaginable Illusion: Live at Pit-Inn (DIW), which stratospherically elevates Ellington's "Prelude to A Kiss" and other whoopee at Tokyo's Pitt-Inn.
That December saw a Variety session produce enough material for 1989's Blue Delight on A&M, plus half of Somewhere Else for Rounder, completed with tracks from the November, 1989 session which resulted in 1990's marvelous second A&M set, Purple Night. The first session, which saw the return of early trombonist Julian Priester and pocket trumpet maestro Don Cherry joining up, marked a shift in Ra's sound, typified by revisiting "Love In Outer Space" as a rich, multi-layered tapestry, reflective rather than explosive. The Purple Night session (at NY's modern BMG studio) continued this lustrous direction, including Ra singing a haunting version of standard "Stars Fell On Alabama" with a 23-piece Arkestra, like Ra was gazing back at his last 30 years' achievements.
1990 began with a punishing gig schedule, Ra now 76 but traversing to all corners of the U.S., Europe five times and to Moscow's first jazz festival. Albums which came from these travels include the standards-reworks of Mayan Temples (recorded in Milan for Black Saint), Live In London 1990 (Blast First, recorded at London's Mean Fiddler in June), Pleiades (Leo, playing specially-arranged outings with a 19-piece orchestra plus Arkestra at Theatre-Carre Saint-Vincent, Orleans, France in October), Live At The Hackney Empire (Leo, London, same month). The last two shows added Talvin Singh on tablas.
The following month, Ra suffered a series of strokes and was admitted to Philly's hospital, where he famously gave his birth-place as Saturn, verified by a knowing doctor. After three months rehabilitation, he had willed himself back on the road but was confined to a wheelchair with his left hand impaired. Ra was a more subdued figure, not speaking onstage but declaring, "the show must go on" off it, even appearing again in the UK and Europe (April's Benlieues Bleues in Montreuil, France recorded and released on Leo as Friendly Galaxy.
In November 1991, John Gilmore had a small group show booked at NY's Village Vanguard, but he gave it to Ra, who could only manage to play synth to beautifully sensitive pianist Chris Anderson, who he knew from Chicago. Completed by drummer Buster Smith, bassist John Ore and guitarist Bruce Edwards, the sextet stretched with subtle restraint on a 21 minute "Round Midnight," "S' Wonderful" and "Autumn In New York" plus "Sun Ra Blues" and "Theme Of The Stargazers." Resulting album Sun Ra Sextet At The Village Vanguard on Jazz Door makes a muted, poignant footnote to Ra's story, although he continued touring with the Arkestra. The March 1992 show in Aarburg was released as Destination Unknown (Enja), with Ra's contributions being sparse but spectrally evident in the big band bombast.
In September, Ra recorded A Tribute to Stuff Smith (Soul Note) with violinist Billy Bang at Sear Sound, NYC. Among standards such as "Yesterdays" and "A Foggy Day," they covered "Deep Purple," the first song Ra 'recorded under his name back in 1948 with Stuff Smith.
It was to be his last recording session on this planet. After Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Harmonica Divergent Jazz Arkestra played NY's S.O.B.'s on October 21, he was hospitalized with another stroke. It was agreed Ra should be sent home to Birmingham to be looked after by his family. His condition worsened and he was admitted to the Baptist Medical Center-Princeton with pneumonia, suffering a heart attack in March. Sun Ra left this planet on May 30, 1993 and was buried at Elmwood Cemetery, accompanied by music by the Arkestra. Of course, this was not the end of the Sun Ra album releases; if anything they've intensified over the years, as already seen. Apart from shamelessly re-plugging my own 3-CD Sun Ra, A Space Odyssey; From Birmingham To The Big Apple; The Quest Begins set for Fantastic Voyage (which focusses on his earliest days) the most recent biggie is Marshall Allen Presents... In the Orbit Of Ra, released as a collaboration between esteemed UK label Strut and Ra-chivists Art Yard. Current bandleader Marshall Allen, who joined the Arkestra on alto saxophone in 1957, rummages in the archives to come up with his own selection to mark his old boss's centenary in stratospheric style. With an emphasis on ancient tribal slinkiness and full-bore space-blast whoopee, Marshall presents faves from between 1958-78, which include many of the afore-mentioned landmarks, from "The Lady With The Golden Stockings" to "Astro Black."
Heard in one fell swoop, it's possible to again appreciate the genius of Sun Ra and unearthly cosmic interplay of the musicians who clambered into his orbit all over again. 45 years since I first heard this music, I can still feel like anything from that boggle-eyed 15-year-old or lifelong Saturn resident soaking in the space rays. If you've experienced neither, it's time to dive in, starting here and with the inter-galactic iTunes bonanza.
The full Sun Ra catalog can be viewed at itunes.com/SunRaMusic. Also watch the skies for SunRa.com, the new website being set up.
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