John Swenson – “Sun Ra: Images of Tomorrow Disguised as Jazz” (1993)

August 27, 2014 at 2:12 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

A review of several Sun Ra reissues, taken from Rolling Stone, March 4, 1993…

Last year’s Horde Tour featured an extended tribute to Sun Ra’s music. He shared a wild July 4th concert in New York’s Central Park with Sonic Youth. He’s been on the cover of Rolling Stone. Until very recently, members of his band lived with him, and they consider him a spiritual as well as musical leader. He has influenced a staggering array of musicians over the years, from NRBQ to the MC5, from Tangerine Dream to George Clinton. He soberly claims to have come from the planet Saturn.

Sun Ra, a.k.a. Herman “Sonny” Blount, is the missing link between Duke Ellington and Public Enemy. Over the past forty years, Sun Ra has led a multimedia circus that combines light shows, exotic dancers and one of the most accomplished large bands of the century, his self-styled Arkestra. In the course of performances that have been known to run for six uninterrupted hours – including those by the hundred-piece band he briefly assembled in the Eighties – Sun Ra deftly juggles swing-band arrangements by Ellington and Fletcher Henderson with searing blues stomps, free-jazz improvisations, gutbucket R&B, wild electronic-music excursions, introspective solo-piano passages, chanting Afro-beat rundowns, gospel call-and-response exchanges, extraterrestrial rap sequences and New Orleans second-line funeral marches.

This dizzying stylistic range was not absorbed overnight; Sun Ra arrived at his musical vision sometime in his thirties (since he claims not to have been born on Earth, his age is indeterminate) after playing in a wide variety of contexts. He organized bands at Alabama A&M and performed in the Fess Whatley orchestra during the Thirties. He toured the South, backing up blues singers such as Wynonie Harris and Lil Green before moving to Chicago, where he finished out the Forties in Fletcher Henderson’s band at the Club DeLisa. Sun Ra worked for close to a decade at this glamorous nightspot, arranging music to accompany the extravagant floor shows and dance marathons that helped form Chicago’s musical legend. By the time he was ready to assemble his first Arkestra, Sun Ra had mastered the full spectrum of swing blues, bop and show music and was ready to put it all together in an otherworldly mix that would anticipate future styles, from free jazz to rock & roll.

Sun Ra’s noble eclecticism has unfortunately contributed to his falling between the cracks of a genre-driven recording industry. Jazz purists refused to hear the evidence that placed him firmly in the tradition of enlightened experimentation epitomized by Ellington and Charles Mingus, choosing to disqualify him as hype because of the sequined skullcaps and gold lamé capes he wore, not to mention the metaphysical homilies he delivered onstage and off. All but the most imaginative rock & roll ears were never exposed to Sun Ra via the usual channels of radio and, in the last decade, video. As a result, virtually all of the scores of recordings on Sun Ra’s own Saturn label have been unavailable to the general public – obtainable only in the most intermittent fashion at live performances.

Or in specialty stores like Third Street Jazz and Rock, in Philadelphia, owned by Ra-phile Jerry Gordon. When Gordon decided to get out of the retail business and launch a record label, Evidence, his first creative decision was to retrieve and re-release as much of the Sun Ra catalog as possible. The ten titles covered in this review offer the first real opportunity for people to hear this music in its intended form, with meticulously remastered sonic quality and accompanied by the original a work and poetic observations from Ra: “This is the sound of silhouettes/Images and forecasts of tomorrow/Disguised as jazz.”

These CDs combine to create an essential picture of Sun Ra’s career. Sound Sun Pleasure!! combines the original release of the same name, thought to have been recorded between 1958 and 1960, with Sun Ra’s earliest recordings, an album originally called Deep Purple, mostly done in 1955, with the title track possibly being completed as much as two years earlier. The material consists primarily of standards, with Ra backing Chicago vocalist Hatty Randolph on several tracks, including an atmospheric reading of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” Ra was already experimenting with otherworldly sounds on this set, playing a crude pre-synthesizer device called a Solovox. Holiday for Soul Dance is another group of standards arranged for a small group and dates from 1960 to 1961.

Monorails and Satellites, a 1966 solo piano recording, showcases Ra’s unique style, which bridges the bluesy architecture of Jelly Roll Morton with the angularity of Monk and Cecil Taylor’s ascent beyond traditional structure. It’s easy to hear in the stuttering layers of harmonic fragments that Ra spins out the basis of his influence on keyboardist Terry Adams of NRBQ.

By the time Sun Ra started recording the Arkestra, in 1956, the band had reached full stride after endless rehearsals and several years of nonstop performing. The vitality of this group is nothing short of astonishing, and its innovative nature, so radical at the time, now sounds aggressively fresh, even mainstream – a mainstream this outfit helped define.

Ra experimented with modal improvisational blueprints years before Miles Davis and John Coltrane made breakthrough recordings using similar techniques. Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth, from 1956, which opens with the incendiary “Reflections in Blue,” includes “Saturn,” one of the band’s most beautiful signature tunes, as well as some more-exotic material recorded in 1958. The Evidence CD also includes the 1960 session Interstellar Low Ways, a space-music suite that finishes with “Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus.” NRBQ’s cover of that tune in the late Sixties introduced a generation of rockers to Ra’s extraordinary vision.

The official recorded debut of the Arkestra, Super-Sonic Jazz, also from 1956, will prove a revelation to anyone nurtured on rock & roll. The band is, first of all, electrified – with Ra on electric piano and Wilburn Green on electric bass. This kind of instrumentation would be considered sacrilegious by the jazz world for at least another decade. On “India,” the opening track, Ra’s piano intro is the clear inspiration for the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.” The arrangement of “Super Blonde,” with its flute fills cruising over pounding toms, anticipates “Sing This All Together,” from the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request.

Jazz in Silhouette, from 1958, is a showcase for the Arkestra’s tenor-sax giant, John Gilmore, and introduces the band’s show-stopping finale, “Enlightenment.” We Travel the Spaceways/Bad and Beautiful, recorded between 1956 and 1961, presents Ra on “cosmic tone organ” and includes another of Ra’s “hits,” “We Travel the Spaceways,” which Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit dropped on the HORDE audiences as part of a medley with “Rocket Number Nine.” Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy and Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow are together on one early-Sixties package of the music that paved the way for acid rock. Listen to “Infinity of the Universe” and you’ll see where the Chambers Brothers got the idea for their psychedelic classic “Time Has Come Today.” Ra’s synthesizer work at the dawn of the Seventies on My Brother the Wind Volume II augured the synth bands that would emerge in the next few years. Other Planes of There is a full-blown free-jazz session from 1964 that, for all its experimentation, has a trancelike beauty that flows irresistibly from the spiritual cries of Gilmore and the Arkestra’s other soloists, Pat Patrick (baritone sax), Marshall Allen (alto sax), Walter Miller (trumpet), Ronnie Cummings (bass clarinet) and Danny Davis (alto sax).

The Arkestra is about much more than simply the brilliance of Ra’s conception. It was, and still remains, the medium for some of the most distinctive voices in American music. Many of these voices have been stilled – Davis and Patrick have died, along with the brilliant trumpeter Hobart Dotson, the soulful bassist Ronnie Boykins and the inventive vocalist June Tyson. Sun Ra himself has been all but silenced since suffering two debilitating strokes. It must be a comfort for him to see his life’s work retrieved from the out-files of history and preserved on these discs. His comfort – and our treasure.

For more information, write Evidence Music, 1100 East Hector Street, Suite 392, Conshohocken, PA 19428. (RS 651)

John Swenson


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