SUN RA

Music From Tomorrow's World
Atavistic Unheard Music UMS/ALP 237CD

Analogous to hearing Count Basie's band at Kansas City's Reno Club in 1935 or Charlie Parker's legendary stand at New York's Famous Door in 1953 with Thelonious Monk on piano, these newly unearthed tapes offer 17 Chicago performances from 1960 by Sun Ra's then tiny Arkestra.

Their fascination lies more in what the Arkestra isn't then what it is. Not yet the familiar, well-organized band of a dozen musicians plus, instead these tracks feature both a sextet and an octet, working through — sometimes for the first time — newly recorded or soon to be taped Ra compositions. Some of the tunes would become Arkestra classics; some would never be recorded or heard again. Additionally, since the first seven selections were taped at Ra's regular gig at the Wonder Inn at Cottage Grove and 75th on Chicago's South Side, you get to hear how the band functioned in a non-listening room circumstance. Mixing familiar show tunes, light classics, jazz syncopation and Ra inventions, the band showed that schtick and showmanship were upfront more than 40 years ago.

To go with the outer space tunes and extraterrestrial references, Ra & Co. were already wearing space togs, as the booklet pictures show. Interestingly enough, however, since he then had a full head of hair, Ra's distinctive headgear is missing.

In this period of consolidation some of the longtime Arkestra heavy hitters such as alto saxophonist/flutist Marshall Allen, tenor saxophonist John Gilmore and bassist Ronnie Boykins were already on board. Other important contributors, who show up on the Majestic Hall recording session, include cornettist Phil Cohran and drummer Robert Barry, who stayed behind when the Arkestra left Chicago, but who helped introduce Ra's ideas of self-sufficiency when the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians was formed later in the decade. Impressive baritone sax man Ronald Wilson would rejoin the band again in the 1980s.

While the arrangements and solo spots are as convincing as they were to remain for the next few decades, each of the sections has some drawbacks. The tape recorder in the Wonder Inn seemed to have been placed closer to the crowd than the Arkestra. That means during some of the selections, cross talk, cash registers, off beat hand claps and a very persistent, probably-inebriated woman's commentary can be heard, sometimes louder than flute or bass solos. She may be enthusiastic all right, but hearing "Play it Sun Ray (sic), play it for me ..." more than once is a bit distracting. Furthermore, in concession to the location, crooner Ricky Murray joins the band for two Gershwin tunes that he manhandles in sort of ycelpt Billy Eckstine style.

Still, Allen ethereal flute work and angular alto solos are already distinctively individual, Ra is discovering hitherto unknown uses for the electric piano in the arrangements and the group is obviously in sync. For example a unison recitation of Ra's "Imagination" — "If we came from nowhere here/Why can't we go somewhere there?" easily launches into a killer rendition of, appropriately, "How High the Moon".

All instrumental, the 10 Majestic Hall sessions are also not very well recorded. This is most noticeable on "Majestic 4" when after a powerful Wilson baritone romp and solid understated Boykins four-string excursion, the massed horns re-enter with harsh vamps that sound if they leaked in from a different studio session.

Besides highlighting some Ra numbers with unfamiliar or unknown titles, this part of the disc shows how having the auxiliary shapes and colors available with an octet allows the leader to daub that much more on his musical canvas. Cohran's high-pitched cornet gives the band a new top line, while Barry's inventive percussion often creates the roughs that link solos to one another. Not only that, but his frequent use of claves and other Afro-Cuban percussion also presages certain non-American heartland themes Ra would try out in later years.

Ra collectors will snap up this session as well they should, as will others interested in hearing how the composer's work developed over the years. However, despite containing some familiar classics this is definitely not a first purchase if you've never heard the Arkestra before. Investigate some of the bands earlier and later studio sessions, then when you understand how the band sounded at its zenith, you can come back and hear how it evolved from its Chicago roots.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Live at The Wonder Inn: 1. Angels & demons at play 2. Spontaneous simplicity 3. Space aura 4. S'wonderful 5. It ain't necessarily so 6. How high the moon 7. China gate The Majestic Hall session 8. Majestic 1 9. Ankhnaton 10. Possession 11. Tapestry from an asteroid 12. Majestic 2 13. Majestic 3 14. Majestic 4 15. Velvet 16. A call for all demons 17. Interstellar Lo-ways (introduction)

Personnel: [Tracks 1-7]: George Hudson (trumpet); Marshall Allen (alto saxophone, flute); John Gilmore (tenor saxophone); Sun Ra (piano, electric piano, percussion); Ronnie Boykins (bass); Jon L. Hardy (drums); Ricky Murray (vocals). [Tracks 8-17]: Phil Cohran (cornet); Gene Easton (alto saxophone); Marshall Allen (alto saxophone, flute); John Gilmore (tenor saxophone); Ronald Wilson (baritone saxophone); Sun Ra (piano); Ronnie Boykins (bass); Robert Barry (drums)