Sun Ra

June 18, 2009

Secrets of the Sun
Atavistic ALP 266 CD

Sun Ra
Live in Cleveland 1975
Golden Years of New Jazz GY 29

Sun Ra’s near-cultish status among some fans, means that, unlike the fanatical disciples such as Dean Benedetti, who preserved non-commercially released work of Charlie Parker and other major jazz figures, Ra material-hoarders number in the hundreds. Consequently previously unknown – or un-circulated – material turns up with increased regularity. Both of these sessions fit into that category.

While not indispensable, each exposes a different facet of the pianist/bandleader’s career. Live in Cleveland 1975 captures a 15-piece version of the Arkestra – heavy on the woodwinds and percussion and Ra’s electronic keyboards – running through new variations on a series of Ra classics – and some surprises. The punningly titled Secrets of the Sun on the other hand, recorded in 1962, showcases smaller Ra units, often involved with piecing together the first versions of soon-to-be notable tunes.

Many of the Arkestra soloists who defined the band’s music over the long-term are accounted for, including saxophonists Marshall Allen and John Gilmore (on both CDs) plus singer June Tyson (on Cleveland) and bassist Ronnie Boykins (on Secrets). Yet the most noteworthy sections of these discs showcase players with shorter Arkestra tenure, or are those tracks featuring usual instruments.

Without a listed traps drummer, for example, the majority of Cleveland’s selections depend for their rhythmic impetus on the electric bass ostinato of the little-known Dale Williams. It’s his relentless and powerful licks plus the clattering congas of Atakatune and Odun on “Enlightenment” and other tunes that pump a proper number of beats into the songs to allow solo freedom. “Enlightenment”, for instance, finds Ra shuddering out the theme on organ while Damon Choice provides ringing vibraphone counterpoint.

Meanwhile the “Friendly Galaxy 2 – I am the Brother of the Wind, I Pharaoh” medley is given an wholly individualistic reading, built on Williams’ pedal-point anchoring, sharp trumpet blasts and the gentle curved lines of five unison flutes. As the horns wrap rococo-like around his voice, Ra proclaims one of his futuristic pronouncements, the message of which is strengthened by tremolo polytones arising from braying brass and flute fripperies.

More predictably – for Ra and the Arkesatra at least – “Sophisticated Lady” is recast as a Swing freak-out, with chordal pumps from the entire band, hocketing plunger tones from the trumpets – going Cootie Williams or Rex Stewart one better – and a stand-out story-telling tenor saxophone solo from Gilmore. As for Ra, his piano playing jumps between high-frequency and triple timing – owing a lot more to Earl “Fatha” Hines than Duke Ellington.

Another scene-setting highpoint comes at the beginning of the program with an 11-minute version of “Astro Nation (of the United World in Outer Space)”. Replete with chants and vocalizing from Eddie Thomas, Tyson and Ra plus hand clapping and backing vocals from everyone, it pinpoints Ra’s rapprochement with the 1970s – mixed up with 1930s echoes. Need a comparison? Imagine if Motown’s Norman Whitfield had produced A Love Supreme if the band was Walter Page’s Blue Devils. Williams’ relentless ostinato is prominent here, but so are squawking split tones from Allen’s alto saxophone and Ra’s slithering Moog rushes and texture propelling. As the vocalization encompasses soulful R&B, pop-gospel and sanctified church call-and-response – with Ra as the preacher. At points the chants and shouts reference the Four Top’s Levi Stubbs in full cry, at others a Full Gospel choir.

Massed pop-gospel choirs, Whitfield-styled production and a Love Supreme were all in the future for Ra and company in 1962. But on evidence of the seven tracks on Secrets of the Sun the concepts which would take Arkestra aggregations from being jazz-dance bands to who-knows-whats was being worked out in a series of sound laboratory experiments at that time.

Like Williams 13 years later, Boykins’ connective pedal point is crucial to most of the performances, bonding a lot more than just the rhythm section. Aiding him are extended vamps from Gilmore and some hand drumming from Tommy Hunter. Art Jenkins’ “space voice” though, which emerged over the years in various forms in different Arkestra line-ups, is an acquired taste. On “Solar Differentials” for instance, he sounds as if he’s gargling and bubble-blowing rather than singing. His kazoo-like tones are only made palatable through Ra’s pseudo boogie-woogie key fanning and Boykins’ thumping beat.

C, Scoby Stroman, drummer on nearly all the tracks is another challenge. Never adverse to take a flashy and thickly pulsed solo that emphasized rolls, flams and chinging cymbal work, his style is an extension of Max Roach’s and Art Blakey’s. As exceptional as that percussion sound may have been for Hard Bop, Ra’s mystical originality and a mishmash of Space Age sensibility demand something far different.

Stroman – aided by Hunter’s percussion – does introduce irregularly pitched rolls and drags on “Reflects Motion” while Ra lays out some kinetic, Cecil Taylor-styled dynamics. But as the piece develops with Gilmore overblowing and sliding theme variations up to altissimo and down again, Ra is wise enough to limit his contributions to comping. Meanwhile the drags, rebounds and clattering cymbals from the percussion section suggest a Perez Prado-performed Beatnik movie soundtrack – all of which is more than a bit distracting, considering what the saxophonist is doing upfront.

One of the few guitarists to ever be featured with Ra, Calvin Newborn also exhibits a stance wedded to the American present not the cosmos. On “Friendly Galaxy”, for instance, his electrified licks and Allen’s or Pat Patrick’s Frank Wess-style fluting mated with Hunter’s tympanis merely creates a version of Exotica.

Furthermore, although memorable and lively, the over-17½ -minute “Flight to Mars” magnifies these undigested jazz-to-mysticism transitions even more. Ra-centric in that it mixes march tempo, rocket-launch intimations and chants, it’s more Bebop in Space than Arkestra by definition. Stroman’s cynosure rhythms have him laying into the traps, ranging over the kit in showy solos as if he is a mutation of Roach and Buddy Rich combined. Allen contributes double-tongued flute peeps, and during his andante arpeggios Ra evidently can’t decide whether to be Errol Garner or Hines. The situation gets more inchoate later on as the otherwise reliable Boykins suddenly begins channeling Slam Stewart. He saws his strings into col legno double-stopping ending in a contrapuntal face off with Gilmore’s sax runs. Meanwhile Newborn’s chromatic single-string licks begin working themselves backwards from Wes Montgomery emulations to Charlie Christian-like twangs. A summation series of octave jumps and runs from Ra – with Boykins seconding him – prevent the tune from dissolving into expected cliché of shout choruses and trading fours, but before Ra redefines the situation, apparently the tape ran out and the music unexpectedly ends..

Not the recommended starting point for those new to Ra, these CDs will still give pleasure to listeners who haven’t been exposed to many of Ra and the Arkestra’s discs. The sessions will also probably be treasured and examined with Talmudic concentration by convinced Ra completists.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Secrets: 1. Friendly Galaxy 2. Solar Differentials 3. Space Aura 4. Love in Outer Space 5. Reflects Motion 6. Solar Symbols 7. Flight to Mars

Personnel: Secrets: (collective) Al Evans (flugelhorn); Eddie Gale (trumpet); Marshall Allen (alto saxophone, flute, morrow and percussion); John Gilmore (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, space bird sounds, space drums and vocal); Pat Patrick (baritone saxophone, flute, bongo and space drums); Sun Ra (piano and gong); Calvin Newborn (guitar); Ronnie Boykins (bass) Tommy Hunter (drums, percussion, space bird sounds and reverb); C. Scoby Stroman (drums); Jimmy Johnson (percussion) and Art Jenkins (space voice)

Track Listing: Cleveland: 1. Astro Nation (of the United World in Outer Space) 2. Enlightenment 3. Love in Outer Space 4. Theme of the Stargazers – the Satellites are Spinning 5. Friendly Galaxy 2 – I am the Brother of the Wind, I Pharaoh 6. Synthesizer Solo 7. Sophisticated Lady

Personnel: Cleveland: Akh Tal Ebah and Kwame Hadi (trumpets); Marshall Allen and Danny Davis (alto saxophone and flute); John Gilmore (tenor saxophone); Eloe Omoe (bass clarinet and flute); Danny Thompson (baritone saxophone and flute); James Jacson (bassoon, flute and infinity drum); Sun Ra (piano, organ and moog); Damon Choice (vibraphone); Dale Williams (electric bass); Atakatune and Odun (congas); June Tyson (vocal and dance) and Eddie Thomas (vocal and dance)