Sun Ra: In Search of the Space Chord
The Ultimate Guide, Part 2
by Kris Needs
Secrets Of The Sun (Saturn 1965; Mastered for iTunes 2014)
Recorded at the Choreographers Workshop in 1962, Secrets Of The Sun is often cited as one of Ra's classic New York releases, although it's a barely-known Saturn album until its 21st century reissue. This Solar Arkestra romp continued the spontaneous combustion between percussion-heavy Afro-centric exotica [the piano-led "Friendly Galaxy," featuring Calvin Newborn's guitar as another new aural spice], proto-dub ["Solar Symbols"], mutant traditional ["Space Aura"'s ensemble crawl] and outer limits explorations such as "Solar Differentials," which was distinguished by Art Jenkins singing into a ram's horn to achieve a sound not unlike a gargling fish for his "space voice." There's also an early version of "Love In Outer Space," one of Ra's most enduring anthems. The 2014 reissue adds the previously-unreleased percussion-piano tinkerings of "Project Black Mass" and full three parts of the "Reflects Motion" suite More Choreographers Workshop tracks appeared on Blast First's 1989 grab-bag Out There A Minute, straddling the stripped down processional-funk shuffle of "Somewhere In Space," early hours Chicago club vibe of "Dark Clouds With Silver Linings" and "Journey Outward"'s hectic freeforall.
The Invisible Shield (Saturn 1974; Mastered for iTunes 2014)
The Invisible Shield aka Janus, A Tonal View Of Times Tomorrow Volume Two is one of the rarest Ra albums, just a few hundred copies with hand-drawn sleeves sold at gigs around 1974, with tracks popping up on subsequent albums. Recorded between 1961-63, side one boisterously traversed hard bop and swing with contagious vitality. Side two presented a total contrast (recorded between 1967 and 1970) with the metronomic Latin vamp of "Island In The Sun" (here in its original ten minute version), the title track's free form turbo-skronk and dubbed out space vocal foraging of "Janus." The iTunes upgrade adds the previously unheard "But Not For Me" with three tracks in stereo for the first time. 1962 rehearsals also produced the obscure What's New? [including a sublime "Autumn in New York"].
When Sun Comes Out (Saturn 1963; Evidence 1993; Mastered for iTunes 2014)
Recorded in late 1962-early 1963, this was another of the rarest Saturn's until a reissue displayed it as one of Ra's all-time best. The set charted further wild new trajectories, including mysterious female singer Theoda Barbara's siren vocals over the percussive pitter of "Circe" (now restored to its original length on the 2014 remaster), African mood music of "The Nile" (which now gains its previously-unreleased second section) and the classic chant of "We Travel The Spaceways." "Calling Planet Earth" is notable for a blistering Pat Patrick baritone sax assault, while "Dancing Shadows" and "The Rainmaker" are convoluted, hard bop torrents, squeezed in a time-twisting knot by the title track. 17-year-old Harlem alto player Danny Davis came and learned from Marshall Allen, displaying an uncanny telepathy which kept him in the Arkestra for 15 years. Birmingham-born trumpeter Walter Miller [who'd played in a mid-1930's Sonny Blount band] joined in 1962, playing with the Arkestra until 1990, while sensitively volcanic drummer Clifford Jarvis manned the traps for the next few years.
When Angels Speak Of Love (Saturn 1966, Evidence 2000)
Recorded in 1963 but not released until 1966, When Angels Speak Of Love revealed a Myth Science Arkestra including Gilmore, Allen, Patrick, Boykins, Jarvis, Davis, Miller and Bugs on percussion and reverb. By now, Ra was beginning another major phase in the Arkestral evolution process by venturing into longer pieces, arranged with a mixture of written parts and space for improvisation. Every track is an astonishing highlight, including "Celestial Fantasy"'s desolate spaced reverie, the haunted planet title track and dazzling intensity of "The Ecstasy Of Being." "Next Stop Mars" sends Ra careering into punishing Cecil Taylor realms before horns rise like an aural wasp's nest, Gilmore's solo a glacier melting into a torrent of blistering interplay which could be rush hour New York in a heat wave or army of marauding Martian red ants.
Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy (Saturn 1967; Evidence 1992; Mastered for iTunes 2014)
Although recorded in 1963, the release of this unashamed personal fave was delayed until 1967, which meant Ra's outsider music milestone out-psychedelicised anything else released in that Technicolour dream of a year with its spectacular realisation of his discombobulated Afro-psych space mission (whose title might have been inspired by a recent show at a Chicago psychiatric institution). Needless to say, it's still startling newness outraged the jazz purists but can now be seen to have predated many of the '60's figures usually called pioneering, such as Zappa and Beefheart. With future mainstay James Jackson making his Arkestral debut on flute and log drum, there are no brass instruments on the whole set, with John Gilmore unusually on stellar bass clarinet throughout. Ra's presence is understated as he steers the sonorous reed-dominated carpets through genuinely unchartered waters, joined by Bugs using reverb as another instrument. With its hand drums and woodwind workouts presaging anything from the Third Ear Band's druid-drone workouts to acid-folk and dub's sonic scientists, the set courses with an alien form of stark, sinuous inner funk. "Thither And Yon" strikes further out again with haunted flute flurries, like an extra-terrestrial form of early English chamber music colliding with modern avant classical. While that track plus "And Otherness" were recorded at the Choreographers' Workshop, the bongo-splattered proto-funk of "Moon Dance," "Adventure Equation" and "Voice of Space" were recorded at Brooklyn's Tip Top club, which Ra had gained permission to use at ten in the morning when Bugs was playing with Hammond organist Sarah McLawler, whose B-3 Ra borrowed. It's incredible how so few knew about this remarkable album for decades. Music might have shifted on its axis earlier. Now it's a definite highlight of the new reissues, even carrying the corroded extra-terrestrial twinkle of a bonus track called "Twilight."
Other Planes Of There (Saturn 1966; Evidence 1992; Mastered for iTunes 2014)
Recorded at the Choreographers Workshop in 1964 and released in 1966, Other Planes Of There saw Miller, Allen, Gilmore, Patrick and Boykins joined by drummers Roger Blank and Lex Humphries, baritone saxist Ronnie Cummings and three trombones courtesy of Ali Hassan, Teddy Nance and Bernard Pettaway. At 22 minutes, the master-piece of a title track took up a whole LP side as one of the longest titles recorded by a jazz group at the time and still sounds outrageously beyond outside normal music as the New York rooftops at dawn themes are meticulously worked out between Ra's intense bursts of Taylor-meets-Monk passive-aggressive rising and fading soloists, including Allen on oboe and new bass clarinetist Ronnie Cummings. The track is also notable for the climactic debut of "the space chord," achieved by all the wind instruments blasting at once. It would now be used as a formidable weapon in future works. Meanwhile, "Sound Spectra/Spec Sket" is a stark drum and horn floater, "Sketch" harks back to earlier jazz forms with its rippling piano clusters and stratospheric Gilmore solo, "Pleasure" is a haunted Patrick baritone vehicle and "Spiral Galaxy" reverbs percussion into a cavernous, reed-topped waltz; a master class in textural weaving. Ra was obviously charting similar unknown and therefore controversial waters as the free jazz musicians busting out all over at that time but was still out on his own - on purpose.
Strange Strings (Saturn 1967; Mastered for iTunes 2014)
With Ra steering the Arkestra through even weirder realms, Strange Strings saw him pursuing the concept of using only stringed instruments to hit listeners in a different way to reeds and brass, declaring, "I'm using the fellows who are playing the instruments as the instrument." Scouring local curio shops, he picked up an array of ukeleles, kotos, mandolins and an early 20th century parlor music zither, adding homemade instruments including a large sheet of tempered metal. With no written music or arrangements, reverb set to stun and band members clutching instruments they'd never played before, Ra created the furthest out album in his entire arsenal, which he called "A study in ignorance." Riding a snaking Boykins bass trampoline, "Worlds Approaching" is roaring, pulsing and woozy, draped in thunder-sheet wobble-board rolls, Allen's spooked oboe and kamikaze playing from Ra (heard for the first time in crystal clear stereo on the 2014 reissue). The title track is almost musique concrete, with scrap iron skirmishes, gargling space voice and strings in plucking frenzy, joined by the aptly titled "Strange Strange" to form the original mono album. In any other hands, this could have been disastrously indulgent but with Ra the sense of mischief is never far away which, imbued with Arkestral aura and reverb, placed the album among his most visionary experiments, pulled off immaculately by the plugged in Arkestra. The 2014 version is another coup, adding three tracks from the original sessions ("Thunder Of The Gods," "Cosmos Miraculous," "Moonshots Across The Sky") which, if anything stretch even further out (and the notes reveal enough rehearsal material for two more albums!).
Sun Ra Featuring Pharoah Sanders & Black Harold (Saturn 1976)
In late 1964, Ra befriended and provided board for a homeless young tenor sax player from Arkansas called Ferrell Sanders, inducting him into the Arkestra after a dissatisfied John Gilmore temporarily left to join Art Blakey. The newly-christened Pharoah Sanders wouldn't make a studio album before joining Coltrane for Ascension the following year, but was captured playing with the Arkestra as part of the Jazz Composers Guild's Four Days In December event held at New York's Judson Hall on the 31st of that month. The consortium of forward-thrusting avant garde musicians had grown out of the October Revolution spawned from the concerts and discussions held at the Cellar Café. The December festival was the first celebration of the new music, also including names such as Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp, Paul Bley and the New York Art Quartet led by Roswell Rudd and John Tchicai. Ra's band for the night also included flautist 'Black' Harold Murray and bassist Alan Silva. In one of the earliest live documents of the early New York Arkestra, Sanders' tenor flies throughout as the Arkestra chart an ever-changing course of chants, percussion interludes, rumbling planet-scapes and other-worldly chamber music. Six tracks were released as Saturn 165 in 1976 although Michael Anderson has tapes of the full concert which may see release in the future.
The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra (ESP-Disk 1965; ESP 1992; 2010 ESP boxset)
For years, ESP-Disk carried a mystique of its own after being started in 1964 by lawyer Bernard Stollman, who vowed to record all the 'new thing' artists after being bowled over by the Cellar shows. ESP-Disk was tantalisingly underground with its defiant, counter-cultural stance, 'You Never Heard Such Sounds In Your Life' slogan, DIY independent presentation and fearless representation of the jazz uprising, giving first airings to names such as Pharaoh Sanders and Albert Ayler (while its rock roster included the Fugs, Pearls Before Swine, Timothy Leary, Holy Modal Rounders, Charles Manson and avant-punk dissidents the Godz). The infamous lack of royalties has tended to cloud the label's reputation in the past but, more recently, it's been acknowledged that many crucial artists and eccentrics would never have been heard or documented without the label. The two Heliocentric Worlds albums released on Fontana in the UK through ESP gave the UK its first real chance to hear Sun Ra's music around 1969, this writer included.
An expanded Solar Arkestra recorded the albums in 1965 with producer-engineer Richard Alderson, who co-owned the state-of-the-art RLA studios on 65th Street with singer Harry Belafonte. The first volume [recorded on April 20] broke free from traditional jazz forms, intensely visual as behemoth sax growls, quicksilver keyboard skirmishes, roaring brass, rumbling tympani and bowed bass conjure anything from the dinosaur swamp of "Outer Nothingness" to "Other Worlds"'s raging free form cauldron, improvised under Ra's direction. Gilmore was back, Ra beaming glistening clouds from his electric celeste and Boykins again a vital component on such outings as "The Cosmos."
Whereas the first volume featured seven shortish tracks, the second [recorded on November 16] stripped back to core musicians to perform three lengthy outings. "The Sun Myth" occupied side one with Boykins' glacial bowed bass, tuned percussion and Ra's clavioline painting a desolate frozen planet-scape, circled by mournful brass. "A House Of Beauty" is another lunar chamber music exercise, Allen's piccolo to the fore, before "Cosmic Chaos" weighs in with the space chord and kind of arranged freeform blastoff which would dominate shows for the next few years. ESP's 2010 three-CD reissue adds a five-track third volume recorded on the same day; further exploring this unique, bare-boned strata which stands alone even in Ra's convoluted output.
The Magic City (Saturn 1966; Impulse! 1973; Evidence, 1993; Remastered for iTunes 2014)
Another pivotal turning point. The title and Ra's cover drawing refer to his Birmingham, Alabama birthplace, dubbed The Magic City after its minerals industry sparked a boom transition. The remarkable 27 minute title track [a rehearsal captured on September 24] reimagines the racist hotbed Ra had escaped from dawn through day to all-enveloping night, the musicians collectively improvising under his hand-signaled direction. After his piano scene-setting which continues throughout as a reference, the same ensemble as the previous album bounce off each other with the uncanny telepathy gained from punishing rehearsals, sometimes left alone or in combinations in a string of riveting statements, the sax-men on particularly ferocious form as teaming urban bustle ebbs and flows into unearthly beauty, the mood underpinned by Boykins' bowed bass. John Gilmore stressed that the track was an "unreproducible" one-off. The original side two featured three tracks recorded that Spring at Babatunde Olatunji's Center of African Culture on 125th Street (the Nigerian percussionist credited with introducing African music to the US was a big influence on Ra after they met in 1961). The immensely complex future Arkestra standard "The Shadow World" is a surging heave of swarming sax action and subterranean piano-percussive undergrowth. Along with giving the sound quality a hitherto unheard depth, the reissue presents this and the title track in stereo or the first time.
Nothing Is (ESP-Disk 1970; ESP 1992)
The next ESP release was a live set recorded during May 1966's tour of New York state colleges which must have wondered what hit them as Ra directed a ten-piece Arkestra through career highlights, from big band to outer space. In 2010, Ra archivist D. Anderson recovered the whole 70 minute first set at St Lawrence University, in Potsdam, NY, from which the original album was edited, plus some of the second set and sound check, presented as ESP's two-CD College Tour Volume 1 (The Complete Nothing Is...). The notes' claim that it stands as important a document of this tumultuous time as landmarks by Hendrix and the Beatles is no idle hyperbole; the range of music and encapsulation of Ra's visions have rarely been better illustrated.
Monorails & Satellites (Saturn 1968)
Monorails & Satellites Volume 2 (Saturn 1969; Evidence 1992; Remastered for iTunes 2014)
Ra recorded his two first solo piano albums in 1966, the second volume receiving a reissue. Here he presented seven original compositions, including blues ["Blue Differentials"], vivid tone paintings ["Space Towers"] and ballads ["Skylight"], often tumbling into dazzling improvisations as he throws curves, caresses the keys then pummels them with sudden force. He also tackles the standard "Easy Street." Just this album alone placed Ra up there with the likes of Cecil Taylor and Lennie Tristano on the instrument he'd played since childhood. This idea of Ra's lifelong raison d'etre being given full wild rein is further bolstered by the reissue featuring six previously unreleased tracks from the same time; all originals apart from a version of "Don't Blame Me." A swooning outing called "The Eternal Tomorrow" is about as liquidly alien but intoxicatingly romantic as only Ra could get.
Atlantis (Saturn 1969; Impulse 1973; Evidence 1993; Mastered for iTunes 2014)
Another milestone, boasting one of Ra's most formidable exercises in the raging, boiling 22 minute title track, recorded in 1967 at Olatunji's loft (edited down from 45 minutes). Starting with sonar bleeps, Ra recreates the elemental power of the ocean flooding the lost city steering and pummeling his Clavioline and 'Solar Sound Organ' [Gibson Kalamazoo organ] into heaving chaos, joined by rearing brass and unexpectedly ending with the "Sun Ra and his Band from Outer Space are here to entertain you" chant. Contrastingly, side one sported four evocative tracks recorded the following year at Sun Studios featuring Ra on "Solar Sound instrument" (Hohner Clavinet), pattering hand percussion and Gilmore's tenor. The 2014 iTunes release boasts both versions of "Yucatan" which appeared on the Saturn and Impulse incarnations of the album. Frighteningly great.
Universe In Blue (Saturn 1972; Mastered for iTunes 2014)
Live At Slug's Saloon (Transparency 2009)
With the Arkestra ensconced in their 'Sun Palace' at 48 East 3rd Street in the East Village, Ra rarely found work at jazz establishments, instead playing downtown clubs or coffee houses like Café Bizarre, Les Deux Megots writer-poets enclave or avant garde movie epicentre the Charles Theatre on Avenue B. In March 1966, the Arkestra began their famous Monday night residency at Slug's Saloon, newly opened on the site of an old Ukrainian restaurant at 242 East 3rd Street between Avenues B and C, a few blocks from the Sun Palace by Second Avenue. By the late 1970's, this was a no-go patch of burnt-out tenements and drugs but, in Ra's time, still funky and multi-ethnic, if edgy and crime-ridden. The residency proved invaluable, providing the Arkestra with a regular Monday night showcase [and rehearsal spot as they played continuous seven hour sets - after practicing all day!], while spreading Sun Ra's reputation as the furthest out at this increasingly far out time. The lineup was further boosted by singers and dancers, including faithful June Tyson, doubling on percussion on wild sections which could last 30 minutes. Fletcher Henderson standards started infiltrating the set for Ra to preserve music of the past in his own way. The residency also allowed Ra to lead the band into reintroducing black music's traditions of unfettered celebration, escapism, bar walking, outrageous costumes and entertainment on their terms, rather than the usual white entertainment expectations. The stint lasted for 18 months, then sporadically until the club was closed a few months after jazz musician Lee Morgan was shot dead outside by a woman in February 1972.
To my mind, just about the most exciting item in the first wave of 2014 remasters is Universe In Blue, credited to Sun Ra and the Blue Universe Arkestra which, after its limited release around 1972, has never been reissued. Captured on cassette, it's the sound of Ra and the Arkestra at their most improvisational, capable of going anywhere on extended workouts, including Ra stretching out his keyboards ("In A Blue Mood" among his most jawdroppingly sensitive performances), solo sax flights, percussive blowouts and a never-repeated June Tyson vocal called "When The Black Man Ruled This Land." Closing jam "Another Shade Of Blue" is simply the greatest embodiment of lowdown, energised after hours sleaze groove anyone could wish for.
Transparency, the label which puts out unashamed bootleg quality documents of key Ra shows, released the six-CD Live At Slug's Saloon in 2009, featuring cassette recordings from two nights in 1972. Amidst atmosphere-stoking bar ambience, it's also the sound of Ra and the Arkestra stretching out on live staples and solo improvisations
Newport Jazz Festival 1969 - The Electric Circus 1968 (Transparency 2008)
For another taste of the Arkestra in full live liftoff in the late sixties, Transparency released two CD's of recordings from the venerable jazz festival (July 1969) and the New York psych-rock venue (formerly the DOM where Warhol staged his Exploding Plastic Inevitable extravaganzas with the Velvet Underground) in early 1968. The vastly-expanded band are on spectacularly ferocious form on both sets, straddling their repertoire for the festival but reinvented with their current brand of cerebral apocalypse. Ra's roaring keyboard recalls John Cale's organ torturing on the Velvets' "Sister Ray" and was certainly madder than any rock band at the time. It's easy to see how they could have divided mainstream jazz crowds. The club date is just as berserk, "Calling Planet Earth" unleashing ten minutes of massed Arkestra wailing and squealing at maximum thrust, although "Spontaneous Simplicity" presages hallucinogenic world music.
A Black Mass (Jihad 1968; Son Boy 1999)
Amiri Baraka hired Ra and the Myth-Science Arkestra to provide music for his Muslim mythology play The Black Mass, first performed in Newark in 1966, recorded in 1968. The cued improvised music and drama were recorded at the former Leroi Jones' new base in Newark, New Jersey. Ra's music and philosophies had inspired Baraka's writing about black music in books and reviews, while his Black Arts Movement informed Ra's palette with elements of black nationalism. Ra was supportive, becoming 'resident philosopher,' while the Arkestra played benefits for the Black Arts Theatre Repertory School. Ra never directly aligned himself with Civil Rights or Black Power, believing his very existence and music was an inspiration and education in itself for all his multi-ethnic followers.
Continuation (Saturn 1970; Mastered for iTunes 2014)
Continuation 2 (Mastered for iTunes 2014)
Recorded in 1968 by the Astro-Infinity Arkestra, Continuation is estimated to have been released on Saturn two years later, although exotica-sprinkled sorties "Earth," "Primitive Earth" and spectral pebbledash of "New Planet" appeared renamed on Blast First's Out There A Minute set. Now, after some limited reissues, the album has been elevated to the 2014 remasters. While the exact times, places and personnel relating to these wonderful outings still seems to be the subject of much speculation, Irwin's diligent forensic work placing it round the time of Atlantis around 1968 but maybe earlier (although 20 minute epic "Continuation To Jupiter Festival" probably dates from '68-'69).
Continuation Volume 2 is even more exciting, being a newly-forged set consisting of tracks which Michael Anderson reckons were recorded at ChoreographersWorkshop around 1963 by small ensembles of between six and eight musicians. It's another highlight of the new masters, moods varying from Chicago-style ultra-cool urban ballads "Blue York" and "Ihnfinity" to the untouchable New York era space-whoopee of "Meteor Shower," dub rumbling "Conversation Of The Universe" and scorching horn blowout "The Myth." "Cosmic Rays - The Next Stop Mars" revisits the skittering 1963 free-for-all released in 1966 on When Angels Speak Of Love.
My Brother The Wind Volume 2 (Saturn 1971; Evidence 1992; Mastered For iTunes 2014)
Recorded at Variety in early 1970, side one of this lovely set starts with Ra pumping spectrally on his new Farfisa 'Intergalactic Organ,' while his Astro Infiniity Arkestra paints dreamy colour-vamps over his Jimmy Smith/Booker T-type workouts, the veteran brass trio frequently making their mark with June Tyson's heavenly vocals (including her signature "Somebody Else's World"), resulting in a bevy of rich, grooving afro-jazz, which Ra scholar Robert Campbell called "spaced-out barbecue music."
Then there was side two. In late 1969 or early 1970, Bugs sorted out Ra to meet Robert Moog about adding his Mini-Moog synthesiser to his aural arsenal. The remaining five tracks featuring his initial dabblings on the instrument about to cause another musical revolution. Naturally, he starts making it his own, spraying out wave signals and proto-electro bleeps as he struggles to transmit his effervescent thought waves through new circuits. (recorded in 1970, when it appeared on Saturn, Volume One consisted of three further Moog excursions, synth tech Gershon Kingsley reprogramming Ra's instrument as the session progressed, backed by Allen, Davis and Gilmore on drums- sadly not reissued).
We'll end part one with Sun Ra leaving New York, the city where he sprouted wings, taking the Arkestra to resettle in Philadelphia, armed with a new electronic battle weapon and new visions for his own personal space programme. Back next time with more!
Thanks to Irwin Chusid for inspiration and guidance. 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 by Chusid and Anderson.
Just in case you missed it, see Part 1 of the Sun Ra guide
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