November 28, 2000
The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums: Cymbals and Crystal Spears
Evidence ECD 22217-2
When Angels Speak of Love
Evidence ECD 22216-2
Pathways to Unknown Worlds/Friendly Love
Evidence ECD 22218-2
Evidence ECD 22220-2
Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel
Evidence ECD 22219-2
Visionary, throwback, shaman, naïf, scholar, student, tyrant, freedom fighter, traditionalist, futurist: Sun Ra was all that and more. Jazz's first space age avant gardist and synthesizer pioneer, he was also the last of the big band leaders.
A native of Birmingham, Ala., he preached about African Americans' Egyptian past, while also proclaiming himself a visitor from the planet Saturn. Someone, who in the 1950s created — El Saturn — Jazz's longest-lasting artist-run label to maintain control of his product, he confounded business people by distributing small numbers of unlabelled LPs with homemade covers. His band, the Arkestra, never followed fad or fashion, and played exceptionally the simplest sing-along chants, note perfect renditions of 1920s classics or the most eccentric atonal music without missing a note, often during the same performance and sometimes within the same composition.
Ra's enigmatic pronouncements and his band's colorful, homemade costumes may have confused many during his lifetime (1914-1993). Yet during the past dozen years as more and more of his LPs have appeared on CD, the length, breath and depth of his work has become more apparent. Unified and ever surprising, the Ra legacy can easily be compared to that left behind by other prescient composers such as Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington.
Official disseminator of Ra's most important work, Evidence has recently come out with five new Arkestra CDs, both reissues and recently discovered music. Like the man himself, these uniformly excellent CDs seemingly offer something for everyone. For the freebop fanciers, there's WHEN ANGELS SPEAK OF LOVE; for the groove-oriented, LANQUIDITY; for long-time followers and sophisticated explorers, THE GREAT LOST SUN RA ALBUMS: CYMBALS AND CRYSTAL SPEARS and PATHWAYS TO UNKNOWN WORLDS/FRIENDLY LOVE. And for those looking for a whiz-bang introduction to the Ra universe, there's GREATIST HITS: EASY LISTENING FOR INTERGALACTIC TRAVEL.
Perhaps the jazz equivalent of the finding of a couple of the Dead Sea scrolls, THE GREAT LOST ALBUMS is the archeological discovery of this set. Recorded by the mature Arkestra in 1973 and planned for release as part of the band's abortive Impulse! contract, the two sessions are as different as night an day, or perhaps Birmingham and Cairo.
For a start, CYMBALS, recorded with only an octet, is a dynamite blues album. With tunes like "Thoughts Under A Dark Blue Light" and "The Order of the Pharaonic Jesters" as greasy and down home as anything Sunny's neighbors in Philadelphia's Germantown could have heard in a local dive, the otherworldliness comes in the solos and choice of instruments. Sure there are soul-styled organ riffs, but Ra plays an early electric keyboard, the Rocksichord — on vibes setting no less — along with the Hammond B3. Moreover, the keening saxophone melisma spit out into the tunes by the tenor saxophone of John Gilmore — Ra's right-hand man — goes far beyond anything imagined by other Chicago soul brothers like Gene Ammons or Johnny Griffin.
Although underrepresented figures such as bass clarinetist Eloe Omoe, alto saxophonist Danny Davis and trumpeter Akh Tal Ebah get their share of solo space, the entire disc could be dubbed a tribute to the Arkestra's bassist, Ronnie Boykins. Whether bonding the horns and percussion with a relentless beat, or unlimbering his sophisticated bow work, the mercurial Boykins was in many ways the glue that held the band together.
His talent was such, in fact that when he had a falling out with Ra and left the band, the keyboardist sometimes preferred to record without a bassman — as the band did on CRYSTALS — than try to replace Boykins' four strings.
That disc is something else again. With the band 12 members strong, four full time percussionists on board and Ra moving from organ to marimba to mini-Moog to electronic vibes to Rocksichord, the session is perversely both more electronic and more acoustic than CYMBALS. For instance Marshall Allen's oboe and Omoe's bass clarinet get a workout on "The Embassy of the Living God", made all the more prominent when framed by the cybernetic soundscape around them. Additionally — although no one would confuse Ra's organ runs with those of Jimmy Smith's — because Swing and R&B grow from the same root, the sort of easy-going shuffle rhythm that Sunny probably internalized from his work with Fletcher Henderson is never far from the surface here.
Longest track — at 20 minutes plus — and another Gilmore tour-de-force is "Sunrise in the Western Sky". Standing tall like a armed warrior in a jungle clearing, underscored by massed percussion and the occasional keyboard interjection, the saxophonist practices some aural karate, wrenching as many tones from his instrument as there are colors in the sunrise. Had this track been released when scheduled (1973), it may have been seen as Gilmore's own "The Freedom Suite" or "Chasin' The Trane".
Released in 1966, ANGELS fits squarely into the New Thing. However it had actually been recorded with a tentet three years earlier, and showed that Ra's avant garde conception was already as much a part of his work as Bebop or Swing.
Notable for Thomas "Bugs" Hunter's early reverb recording technique, which would remain a feature of Arkestra sessions for years to come, the strategy was actually more Saturnian serendipity. Like the fuzztone created by a broken amplifier on an early Rock'n'Roll tune, "Rocket 88", Ra's joyful adoption of Hunter mistakenly connecting a tape recorder's output to its input gave the band an inimitable sound that couldn't be replicated by the most up-to-date studio equipment.
As always, percussion and percussive sounds lurk everywhere, especially on tracks like "Ecstasy of Being". But some of the needed tension comes with the contrast between trumpeter Walter Miller's more conventional Bop and Swing ideas and Gilmore and Allen's outwardly-directed — or is it heavenly? — work. Ra prolongs this musical schizophrenia as well, trotting out his Clavioline, but also contributing bluesy piano fills to the Boppish "The Idea of It All" and some dark, subterranean piano chords to "Next Stop Mars". Another Ra "hit", that track begins with the standard outer-space vocal chant, then opens up enough to give the horns — especially Gilmore exposing his most paint-scraping tenor tone — ample flight space. Even Miller gets into the act with some echoing tones that would appear more commonplace in the late 1990s then the early 1960s.
Initially recorded in quadraphonic sound and barely released by Impulse! PATHWAYS and the newly discovered FRIENDLY, are in contrast, cued or guided improvisations. The most abstract of this collection of discs, many of the tracks are light on drumbeats and seem to be pieced together from sounds produced by the sidemen. As a matter of fact, someone not knowing the circumstances might be persuaded to hear them as so-called "classical" New Music.
Throughout PATHWAYS, Ra shows off two keyboard sounds, frequently on the same tune. On "Cosmo-Media," for instance, each of the keyboard conceptions makes an appearance bookending Glimore's lung-shredding falsetto tenor solo. Synthesizer and electronic vibes produce the sci-fi flick-style blats and bleeps, while the organ cushions the background with a steady melody line.
Adding to this emphasis on pure sound rather than composition or harmony, other Ra stalwarts such as bassist Boykins, Allen — concentrating on oboe on the title track and "Extension Out" — and Omoe — using his overblown bass clarinet to battle concentrated percussion on the same tune — make appearances, but just that. Presented as contributing to the overall texture of the tunes, rather than being showcased as "jazz" soloists, this forces the listener to view the entire disc as program music.
A rare artifact, FRIENDLY, is more of the same, but with Boykins AWOL and the beat carried by Atakatune's conga drums. Slightly muddy, as if it was recorded at a rehearsal — a frequent Ra strategy — the supposed four-part suite, moves along courtesy of horror movie style organ chords and some of Hadi's stronger brass work. If the suite is especially notable, it's because of the one-time appearance and use of such Arkestra-titled instruments as the space dimension mellophone and Neptunian libflecto. The latter is described as "a bassoon that has suffered a hostile takeover", with its double reed apparatus cunningly replaced by a single mouthpiece.
Since this CD is built around an outer space conception and the production of uncommon sonic timbres, none of these unique instruments is prominent the way they would be in a more conventional environment. But this matter-of-factly acceptance of the unusual is what defined the Arkestra as the band it was — and is.
LANQUIDITY is a different matter all together. Recorded in 1978, it could be called the Arkestra's "disco album" or perhaps its extended dance mix. Granted those two descriptions are a bit exaggerated and there's no way you'd ever see Sun Ra legs splayed on the dance floor wearing a polyester white suit. Nevertheless, he was no stranger to spinning, light-refracting disco balls and the band members were wearing glittery costumes on stage long before LaBelle or David Bowie.
Despite the heavy beat propelled by two guitarists, three percussionists and what sounds like an electric bass on "Where Pathways Meet" and "That's How I Feel", the most interesting facet of the CD was how Ra adapted new electronic keyboards to his own ends. When you hear 1970s Fusion favorites the Arp or the Fender Rhodes peeping out from within the throbbing big beat, it doesn't appear that there's a Herbie Hancock clone pushing out expected licks. Instead you hear the mature conception of someone who had begun using electronics his own way when Hancock was still a Chicago schoolboy.
Furthermore, while these foot-tappers cause soloists John Gilmore and (probably) Danny Thompson to unveil their R&B togs under their spangled Arkestra caps, Ra perversely pairs Marshall Allen's oboe with the bulked up rhythm section on the title track and elsewhere. Even the trumpeters are most likely to turn out muted asides than full-blown Kool-and-the-Gang flourishes. Plus the only advantage Ra took of one of the band's first excursions into a 24-track studio was to overdub tapes to build up the finished product in even more complicated — though aurally transparent — manner than he usually did.
Betraying ever rule of then fashionable funk-jazz, the only human voices heard appear on the CD's last track, in a signature Ra chant, rife with whispered melodies and inaudible asides, except for repetition of the title words by June Tyson, Ra's designated diva. Echoing flutes, an oboe motif, muted trumpets and a steady exploration of the piano's bass notes confirms that this isn't Studio 54, but outer space.
Finally there's GREATEST HITS. A misnomer, of course, since nothing the Arkestra ever recorded every made it into the Top 100, let alone the Top 10. Still, there were compositions that remained in its book year after year and were played at nearly every gig. This disc contains 18 examples of these "hits", each one of which is also available on other Evidence CDs.
Showcasing a clutch of the band's best soloists, the tunes range from early big band explorations like "Saturn" and "Kingdom of Not"; to inimitable orchestral chants such as "We Travel The Spaceways" and "Rocket Number Nine"; and include standards such as "'Round Midnight" and "I Loves You Porgy"; plus more experimental numbers like "Thither and Yon" and "Yucatan". There are even rare examples of Ra playing solo piano or with just a rhythm section.
The perfect entry into the Ra universe, this CD will probably lead potential converts to explore many of the other sessions by the Man from Saturn.
— Ken Waxman
Lost: Cymbals: Track Listing: 1. The World of the Invisible 2. Thoughts Under A Dark Blue Light 3. The Order of the Pharaonic Jesters 4. The Mystery of Two 5. Land of the Day Star Personnel: Akh Tal Ebah (trumpet); Danny Davis (alto saxophone); John Gilmore (tenor saxophone); Eloe Omoe (bass clarinet); Sun Ra (electronic vibes, Rocksichord); Ronnie Boykins (bass); Harry Richards (drums); Derek Morris (conga) Lost: Crystal: Track Listing: 1. Crystal Spears 2. The Eternal Sphynx 3. The Embassy of the Living God 4. Sunrise in the Western Sky Personnel: Akh Tal Ebah, Kwame Hadi (trumpet, percussion); Marshall Allen (alto saxophone, oboe, flute, piccolo); Danny Davis (alto saxophone, flute, percussion); John Gilmore (tenor saxophone); Danny Ray Thompson (baritone saxophone, bongos); Eloe Omoe (bass clarinet, percussion); Sun Ra (organ, marimba, mini-Moog, electronic vibes, Rocksichord, gong); Clifford Jarvis (drums); Atakatune, Odun (congas); Eugene Brennan (percussion)
Angels: Track Listing: 1. Celestial fantasy 2. The Idea of It All 3. Ecstasy of Being 4. When Angels Speak of love 5. Next Stop Mars
Personnel: Walter Miller (trumpet); Marshall Allen (alto saxophone, oboe, percussion); Danny Davis (alto saxophone, percussion); John Gilmore (tenor saxophone, percussion); Pat Patrick (baritone saxophone, percussion); Robert Cummings (bass clarinet); Sun Ra (piano, Clavioline, gong); Ronnie Boykins (bass); Clifford Jarvis (drums); Thomas "Bugs" Hunter (drums, reverb)
Pathways: Track Listing: 1. Pathways to Unknown World 2. Untitled 3. Extension Out 4. Cosmo-Media Personnel: Kwame Hadi (trumpet, percussion); Akh Tal Ebah (mellophone, space dimension mellophone, percussion); Marshall Allen (alto saxophone, oboe); Danny Davis (alto saxophone); John Gilmore (tenor saxophone, timbales); Danny Ray Thompson (baritone saxophone, bongos); Eloe Omoe (bass clarinet, percussion); Sun Ra (organ, mini-Moog, electronic vibes, Rocksichord, gong); Ronnie Boykins (bass); Clifford Jarvis (drums); Atakatune (congas); James Jacson (Ancient Egyptian Infinity drum) Friendly Love: Track Listing: 1. Friendly Love I 2. Friendly Love II 3. Friendly Love III 4. Friendly Love IV Personnel: Kwame Hadi (trumpet, congas); Akh Tal Ebah (flugelhorn, mellophone, space dimension mellophone, percussion); Marshall Allen (oboe); Danny Davis (alto saxophone); John Gilmore (tenor saxophone); Danny Ray Thompson (baritone saxophone, Neptunian libflecto); Eloe Omoe (contra-alto-clarinet, bass clarinet); Sun Ra (organ, mini-Moog); possibly Harry Richards (drums); Atakatune (congas);
Lanquidity: Track Listing: 1. Lanquidity 2. Where Pathways Meet 3. That's How I Feel 4. Twin Stars of Thence 5. There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You Of) Personnel: Michael Ray, Eddie Gale (trumpet); Marshall Allen (alto saxophone, oboe, flute); John Gilmore (tenor saxophone); Danny Thompson (baritone saxophone, flute); Julian Pressley (baritone saxophone); James Jacson (bassoon, flute, oboe); Eloe Omoe (bass clarinet, flute); Sun Ra (Arp, Fender Rhodes, Yamaha organ, Hammond B3 Organ, mini-Moog, piano, orchestral bells, Crumar electronic keyboard); Dale Williams, Disco Kid (guitar) Richard Williams (bass); Atakatune (congas, tympani); Michael Anderson, Luqman Ali (percussion); June Tyson, Eddie Tahmahs, James Jacson (space ethnic voices)
Greatest Hits: Track Listing: 1. Saturn 2. Kingdom of Not 3. Medicine for a Nightmare 4. Enlightenment 5. 'Round Midnight 6. Velvet 7. Rocket Number Nine Takes Off for the Planet Venus 8. I Loves You, Porgy 9. We Travel The Spaceways 10. When Angels Speak of Love 11. Thither and Yon 12. Pleasure 13. The Alter Destiny 14. Yucatan 15. Otherness Blue 16. We'll Wait for You 17. The Order of the Pharanoic Jesters 18. The Perfect Man Personnel: The Arkestra, recorded in different sessions from 1956 to 1973 with many of the musicians listed above