Sun Ra

Featuring Pharoah Sanders & Black Harold
ESP 4054

Ronnie Boykins

The Will Come, Is Now

ESP 1099

Reissued and newly discovered sounds by composer/bandleader Sun Ra [1914-1993] are helping to fill gaps in his massive oeuvre and present a more complete picture of his activities. These two exceptional discs for instance, recorded a decade apart by a distinct Ra Arkestra and a valued member of his organization reveal additional – and unexpected – facets of Ra’s musical life.

Paradoxically, each suggests that despite his extraterrestrial trappings, the loquacious Ra may have actually been only as avant-garde as Duke Ellington, who similarly was never at a loss for words. Featuring Pharoah Sanders & Black Harold for example, combines previously un-issued and spottily distributed 1964 tracks that showcase musicians who otherwise didn’t play with the Arkestra. In this way the sessions are not unlike radio air checks that capture the work of unrecorded Ellington bands of the 1940s. Similar to what those slabs of the Ducal canon also reveal, the tracks prove that no matter how powerful the presence of tenor saxophonist Sanders – subbing for John Gilmore who had joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers – and log drummer/flutist Black Harold (Murray) – who would reappear for a time in the 1990s in Chicago’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble – is, their contributions don’t really modify Ra’s singular and mercurial vision.

Recorded in 1975, The Will Come, Is Now is the only disc led by bassist Ronnie Boykins [1935-1980], whose strength propelled the Arkestra from the later 1950s to mid-1960s. It raises yet another Ellington-related question. Like leadership forays by Ellington saxophonist Johnny Hodges and others which remained beholden to Ellington’s sound without playing any of his compositions, could it be, as scholars have observed about Ellington, that some of Ra set pieces actually arose from musical ideas his sidemen contributed? Certainly this CD’s six tracks played by a septet – the other members of which had no experience with Sun Ra – features sounds, music and the song titles, all written by Boykins, that have an unmistakable Arkestral cast.

George Avaloz’s conga, bells and shaker timbres plus Art Lewis’ percussion and drum beats that are audible throughout – not to mention Boykins’ vigorous bass underpinning – eerily evoke Ra small-band sessions as accurately as solo LPs by Hodges, or Rex Stewart among others, did Ellingtonia. Take a piece such as “Dawn Is Evening, Afternoon”, which cognitively layers surging reed passages on top of positioned drum press rolls and conga bumps. It sure sounds like a leaf from the Ra band book. More crucially however – and in a different fashion – Boykins’ unheralded but professional front line of trombonist Daoud Haroom and saxophonists Monty Waters, Jimmy Vass and Joe Ferguson easily take the sped-up and fragmented tempo changes in stride. Even the faux Oriental measures that at points place vamping horn exposition on top of Boykins’ walking bass don’t faze their close interaction.

This mixture of Bebop and Exotica is obvious throughout the CD. Squeals and snorts from Waters – who died just recently – and stinging counter lines from Vass, for instance, often make common cause with the berimbau-like shakes and bell ringing from the percussionists.

Boykins presents his own variation on post-modernism here as well. “Starlight At The Wonder Inn”, which named for a Chicago club where the Arkestra frequently had a residency, features a low-pitched, mellow string exploration by the bassist that actually seems to be Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” rather than an original melody – a trope reminiscent of Ra’s performances with their frequent interpolation of quotes from other tunes. At the same time as the bassist’s expressive low-pitched intonation is exposed, Vass responds with sharp asides and the drummer with tough whacks and strokes. Boykins’ time-keeping skill is so impressive, in fact, than it’s obvious why in later years the Arkestra would often go for a protracted period without a bassist if Ra couldn’t find someone to properly replicate Boykins’ role

Happily Boykins is a member of the 16-piece Arkestra on Featuring Pharoah Sanders & Black Harold. Yet for added string heft the live date also includes second bassist Alan Silva, whose experience stretches from stints with Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor at the New Thing’s birth to cerebral sound stretching with the likes of British drummer Roger Turner and German trombonist Johannes Bauer in this century.

The most obvious exposure of the bass tag team is on “The Now Tomorrow”. In double counterpoint, one plays lanky sul tasto lines and the other answers with staccato shuffle bowing. A pseudo-ballad, at the top the piece includes doubled, piercing flute arpeggios, an unidentified mid-range chord that could come from either a string struck col legno or an oboe played moderato [!] and an extro that simultaneously involves pitched boogie-woogie-styled cadences on the piano and ringing celeste timbres.

Reassuringly familiar yet completely unique – like Ellington’s best work – Ra shapes the Klangfarbenmelodie through sudden twists and turns with looming multi-horn space chord explosions at one point and Africanized percussion forays or scrubbed string expositions elsewhere. A track like “Discipline 9” for example, whose impressionistic polyphony is built on sliding piano harmonies, at first appears to be an Ellingtonian or Mingusian-styled tone poem. Yet the middle section exposes an off-key vocalization of “We Travel the Spaceways”, while the drummers sound a shuffle beat and Ra clanks the keys as if he was playing for a beginner’s dance class. Finally among the clave and wood block chatter, friction and scrapes emerge with otherworldly intonation that can probably be traced back to Art Jenkins’ space voice.

Sanders’ almost patented overblowing, vocalization and altissimo shrieks are most clearly expressed on “The Other World” plus “The World Shadow” and its two affiliated extensions. But even here, he’s just one voice among many. Pat Patrick’s honking baritone saxophone is as prominent on the first tune, along with plunger puffs and darting sharp-toned triplets from trumpeters Al Evans and Chris Capers, plus gutbucket blats from trombonist Teddy Nance. With Ra nothing is simple however, so before the finale kicks in, the composition has gone through two further variations. Modulating through a Swing Era-style vamp, the background behind Patrick growls is transformed with double-gaited rhythms that not only show off call-and-response facility of the two trap-set drummers, but involve paradiddles, smacks, press rolls knocked out by nearly every musician playing percussion as well as Murray’s log drum textures.

This combination of kit and log drum pounding is also apparent on “The World Shadow”, along with Sanders vociferous screams and hocketing timbres, while Ra’s pianism half relates to Thelonious Monk and half to Cow Cow Davenport. Then, hard metallic clanging from cymbals, gongs and the like replace deep-dish percussion, Cat Anderson-like trumpet triplets become more obvious than the saxophone riffs and the choked, warbling space voice leads in to “Rocket Number 9” taken as another boogie-woogie. Before the miniature suite rappels downwards to dimuendo at the end of “The Voice of Pan” with log drumming following a gentling flute break, Sanders and Marshall Allen lock saxophones in a showdown worthy of Ellington sax battle by exuberant stars such as Paul Gonsalves. Glottal punctuation, double-quick cries and key pops issue from both horns with no differentiated or diminishing in reed strength from them or the other saxophonists who eventually join the fray.

Filled with exhilarating performances, this CD adds another notable session to the Ra cannon. Plus like an Ellington-tinged small group effort by the Duke’s closest associates, Boykins’ set not only provides equally memorable music, but a glimpse of the influences on and influences from Ra.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Black: 1. Cosmic Interpretation 2. The Other World 3. The Second Star is Jupiter 4. The Now Tomorrow 5. Discipline 9 6. Gods on a Safari 7. The World Shadow 8. Rocket Number 9 9. The Voice of Pan 10. Dawn Over Israel 11. Space Mates

Personnel: Black: Chris Capers (trumpet); Al Evans (trumpet and flugelhorn); Teddy Nance (trombone); Bernard Pettaway (bass trombone); Marshall Allen and Danny Davis (alto saxophones); Pharoah Sanders (tenor saxophone); Pat Patrick (baritone saxophone); Robert Cummings (bass clarinet); Black Harold [Murray] (flute and log drum); Sun Ra (piano and celeste) Alan Silva and Ronnie Boykins (bass); Clifford Jarvis and Jimmhi Johnson (drums) and Art Jenkins (space voice)

Track Listing: Will: 1. The Will Come, Is Now 2. Starlight At The Wonder Inn 3. Demon's Dance 4. Dawn Is Evening, Afternoon 5. Tipping On Heels 6. The Third I

Personnel: Will: Daoud Haroom (trombone, bells, shaker); Monty Waters (alto and soprano saxophones, bells and shaker); Jimmy Vass (flute, alto and soprano saxophones, bells and shaker); Joe Ferguson (flute, soprano and tenor saxophone and shaker); Ronnie Boykins (bass, sousaphone, bells and shaker); Art Lewis (percussion, drums, bells, shaker) and George Avaloz (conga, bells and shaker)