Sun Ra

May 3, 2008

Some Blues But Not The Kind Thats Blue
Atavistic UMS ALP 265 CD

Sun Ra
The Complete Disco 3000 Concert
Art Yard CD 001

Nearly 15 years after his death – oops, leave-taking for another planet – reissued, unknown and newly discovered sessions by keyboardist/composer/band leader Sun Ra (1914-1993) continue to appear. With the facilities of his own Saturn label plus whichever label(s) he was signed to at the time available to him, Ra evidently recorded just about every scrap of sound involving him and his band.

Furthermore, although Ra was first and foremost a large ensemble specialist – he directed the last constantly working big band – if the occasion demanded, he fronted small groups as well – as these fascinating documents attest. As tradition-oriented as he was futuristic, Ra’s set list was as colossal as it was unpredictable. Thus these discs recorded in 1973, 1977 and 1978, contain not only new material such as both CDs’ title tracks, but a mixture of Ra “hits” such as “We Travel the Spaceways” and “Sun of the Cosmos” and standards such as “My Favorite Thing” and “Nature Boy”.

Taking the discs separately, Disco 3000, a two-CD set from a 1978 Milan concert, showcases probably the smallest band with which Ra ever toured. Besides himself on piano, organ, moog synthesizer, rhythm machine and vocals plus a brief appearance by band singer June Tyson, there are only three other players – Michael Ray on trumpet and vocals, John Gilmore on tenor saxophone, drums and vocals and Luqman Ali on drums and vocals. The tracks from 1977 on Some Blues But Not The Kind Thats (sic) Blue features a tentet – Ra, Gilmore and Ali plus Akh Tal Ebah on trumpet and flugelhorn; Marshall Allen and Danny Davis on alto saxophones and flutes; James Jackson on flute and bassoon; Eloe Omoe on bass clarinet; Richard “Radu” Williams on bass and Atakatune on conga. The final two tracks are from 1973 with two versions of “I’ll Get By” arranged as a solo vehicle for either Ebah or Gilmore, backed by Ra’s pumping, decidedly pre-bop organ and Ronnie Boykins’ rhythmically solid bass line.

Especially because of the bassist, either version is moving in its simplicity, but both curiously exist outside of the-then contemporary time frame. On its own, Ra’s pumping and syncopation on organ resemble Fats Waller’s approach to the double keyboard more than anything played post-Jimmy Smith. Ebah’s lightly swinging chromatic reading of the tune wouldn’t have been out of place with Jimmy Lunceford’s or Fletcher Henderson’s band. Even Gilmore’s relaxed tonality and undulating exploration of the piece – which almost never strays from the melody – puts him in the Chu Berry-Herschel Evans early Swing mode. It contains none of the harmonic advances that Coleman Hawkins latterly brought to the horn in the 1940s and 1950s.

Gilmore takes on the spectre of John Coltrane however when, accompanied by the full band in1977, he performs “My Favorite Things”, one of Trane’s signature pieces for soprano saxophone. Although Coltrane was fragmenting the tune into nearly unrecognizable molecules by his death in 1967, Gilmore, playing tenor only is more restrained and respectful of the theme. At the same time, Gilmore who was touted by Trane as one of the building blocks in his – Coltrane’s – mature style, still flutter tongues and rolls out split tones. Gilmore’s also no cynosure. To attain its conclusive form, his elaboration of the theme depend on Ra’s tremolo, flowery and hand-over-hand accompaniment plus percussive boogie-woogie-like comping, as well as some clattering slaps from Ali.

Others tracks on the CD are more modern – especially the newly discovered “Untitled”, with its slurping bassoon and snorting bass clarinet involved in a staccato chase that ends up as discordant as Ra’s pianism is legato. Yet the overriding impression from the session is that of an older Ra coming to terms with his past. Surging on pop and bang friction from Akatune’s conga drumming, 1977’s “I’ll Get By” contrasts markedly with the 1973 versions. Although Gilmore is again channeling Chu Berry, Ali gives the impressions he’s manipulating a stripped down “cocktail drum” set and Ra’s metronomic runs and high-frequency cadences recalls Teddy Wilson Errol Garner and even George Shearing. With left-handed feints and dragging cross patterns, his solo suggests a time before the jet plane, let alone the rock ship was in common use.

Rocket ships and space travel are front-and-centre in 1978 for The Complete Disco 3000 Concert, especially when the stripped down Ra crew outputs a selection of Arkestra favorites. “We Travel the Spaceways” gets an energetic treatment, with Ra singing lead while thrusting out agitato and staccato piano clusters; Ray and Gilmore alternately squeaking in the stratosphere and unearthing subterranean growls as the band hand-claps and exits the stage.

“Dance of the Cosmo Aliens” is built on a constant drum beat and massive gong reverberations audible while Ra pulsates spliced and smashed nearly liquid coloration from his Moog, along with triggered drum machine clinks, bass drum backbeat and maracas-like friction. Before concluding with a gong resonation that would have impressed J. Arthur Rank, he snakes out a chord that is as slippery and slinky as if it was played on a Farfisa organ. “Spontaneous Simplicity” features a synthesizer tone midway between a vibraharp and a gamelan, as well as throbbing organ riffs, although most of the tune is a showcase for Ray’s twisted and bent vibrated grace notes. Even “Echoes of the World” is presented as a fantasia for Gilmore’s Tranesque – or is it actually Gilmoresque? – styling, all double-tongued and double-timed, as well as tinkling keyboard fills from Ra.

Then there’s the title tune, which fades in-and-out of aural focus as Tyson helps Ra interpolate “Space is the Place” into the theme, while Gilmore contributes double-tongued trills and Ray’s plunger work builds up to a blues tonality. Before Gilmore has finishes chewing through the tune with long-lined tone extensions and Ray aims for Cat Anderson-like stratospheric triplets, Ra elaborates separate melodies – neither particularly disco-like – from each hand. One thumps and crunches with incontinent rhythms from the Moog, while the other uses the organ’s fluttering watery grooves to make its point. Ali’s – and perhaps Gilmore’s – drumming helps to push the undulating overtones into place, but suppleness is missing with no double bass present.

Most notably, the Janus-like future-past dichotomy that was present on the earlier disc remains a sub-theme here. “When There is no Sun” includes atonal horn trills and smears, a poetic recitation by the band in toto, a brief recap of “Space is the Place”, Ra splashing and splaying polyphonic themes from both electronic keyboards, and wiggling and whooshing rocket-launching oscillations. But it ends with a Tatum-like solo piano run though of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.

The vibes – to use a 1970s word – are even more retro on “Sky Blues”. A throwback to the sort of honky-tonk riffs Ra must have internalized growing up in Alabama – recall that Avery Parish, composer of “After Hours” was a friend – this could be Ra’s rent party homage. Is he channeling Ray Bryant or is it Jimmy Yancy or Little Brother Montgomery? With the piano outlook adding a constant walking bass line to the theme development and Ali whacking a thick shuffle beat, Ra’s key ruffling provides the appropriate backdrop to Ray’s vamps and riffs plus Gilmore’s tough tenor honking that could have migrated from a David “Fathead” Newman or Don Wilkerson session.

Ra’s phantasmagoric ability to simultaneously create in the past, present and future is showcased well on both of these discs. While nothing here approaches indispensable Ra, with a mind as fertile as Ra’s – and sidemen this committed – it’s always valuable to get a new glimpse into his compositional and performance strategy. Additionally, more easily available Ra is always welcome.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Blues: 1. Some Blues But Not The Kind Thats Blue* 2. I’ll Get By 3. My Favorite Things 4. Untitled 5. Nature Boy 6. Tenderly 7. Black Magic; 8. I’ll Get By+ 9. I’ll Get By+

Personnel: Blues: Akh Tal Ebah (trumpet and flugelhorn); Marshall Allen and Danny Davis (alto saxophone and flute); James Jackson (flute and bassoon); Eloe Omoe (bass clarinet); John Gilmore (tenor saxophone); Sun Ra (piano or organ); Richard “Radu” Williams* or Ronnie Boykins+(bass); Luqman Ali (drums) and Atakatune (conga)

Track Listing: Disco: Disc 1: 1. Disco 3000 2. Sun of the Cosmos 3. Echos of The World 4. Geminiology 5. Sky Blues 6. Friendly Galaxy Disc 2: 1. Third Planet incl, Friendly Galaxy 2. Dance of the Cosmo Aliens 3. Spontaneous Simplicity 4. Images incl, Over The Rainbow 5. When There is no Sun 6. We Travel the Spaceways

Personnel: Disco: Michael Ray (trumpet and vocals); John Gilmore (tenor saxophone, drums and vocals); Sun Ra (piano, organ, moog synthesizer, rhythm machine and vocals); Luqman Ali (drums and vocals) and June Tyson (vocals)