Dave Young, Art Hoyle (tp), Julian Priester (tb), James Scales (as), John Gilmore (ts), Pat Patrick (bs, as), Charles Davis (bs), Sun Ra (p, org), Richard Evans, Victor Sproles, Wilbur Green (b) Bob Barry, William Cochran (d)
Reference: FSRCD 495
Bar code: 8427328604956
Chicago pianist Sun Ra emerged as a leader on the jazz scene early in 1956, when he assembled a group of neo-boppers that contributed to the original and exciting jazz sound offered by his new Sun Ra Arkestra, a medium-sized group that swung like a giant locomotive, an effect primarily due to an interesting use of two basses playing simultaneously.
They featured the power of big band ensemble along with the excitement of combo blowing by fine soloists, among them the driving tenor John Gilmore, trombonist Julian Priester, and Hoyles well-directed trumpet. They played with swinging warmth and directness of emotion, but despite all this it as always Sun Ras musical personality which dominated the performances. He was a bandleader who dealt with the cosmos and its future and its worth earing the new horizons of the first Sun Ra Arkestra. After all, they were busily turning the jazz cosmos itself upsidedown - and that is no small feat.
"Sun Ra (1914-93) had unquestionably one of the longest creative careers in jazz, establishing a visionary band in the mid '50s that would absorb and transform other musical elements for decades, always maintaining its own identitypart science fiction, part vaudeville, part mystery cultall of it subsumed in the effervescent joy and infernal power of a music that spanned big-band swing and conducted improvisation. While Sun Ra has passed on, the vision persists, with veteran saxophonist Marshall Allen undertaking new projects for the band as well as maintaining some of the core repertoire. The original Ra genius, though, is much in evidence in the recent bevy of reissues and archival discoveries.
Though it's freshly reissued, New Horizons repackages some of the best-known Sun Ra material with some that's less familiar, all of it from 1956 and all of it from the band's long Chicago incubation. The ten tracks of Sun Song, Ra's first commercial recording, are combined with selections from LPs on his own Saturn label. It's essential work, immediately demonstrating Ra's strong connections to swing (Fletcher Henderson, in particular, with whom he'd worked as a young man) while extending the harmonic innovations of bop in a manner that's similar to George Russell's Lydian chromatic techniques of mixing modes. There's already a polyrhythmic inventiveness at the core of Ra's arrangements and he had begun to assemble some of the distinctive voices that would contribute to his band's identity, including tenor saxophonist John Gilmore and baritone saxophonist Pat Patrick. The crisply boppish trumpet of Art Hoyle is another important element.
Eight years later the Ra ensemble had migrated from Chicago to New York (with an extended hiatus in Montreal) and found itself in the midst of the free jazz revolution. A portion of Featuring Pharoah Sanders & Black Harold has been previously issued, but this ESP release adds more than 45 minutes of music, as well as establishing the actual date of the performance as December 31, 1964. The concert includes a couple of familiar Ra anthems"The Second Stop Is Jupiter" and "Rocket Number 9"but it's most notable for the stunning integration of some of Ra's regular collaborators with younger emerging musicians, with the brilliant young Pharoah Sanders replacing John Gilmore, Black Harold (Harold Murray) adding his voice-augmented flute and bassist Alan Silva and drummer Clifford Jarvis supplementing the rhythm section. It adds a special creative density to the band and results in even more extended percussion music than was usual in a Ra concert. It's essential hearing for anyone with an interest in Ra's music.
The sound quality on Live at the Electric Circus/Newport Jazz Festival suggests the performances were recorded by a band or audience member on home equipment. Some tracks are untitled and the sometimes speculative personnel listings lack instrument identifications. However, the late '60s was an important period for the band: the New York milieu of experimentation tended to press the band's expressionist creativity while downplaying some of the theatrical elements. The 11 short tracks from the 1969 Newport concert are clipped and fragmentary, but it's a rare performance by the Arkestra in the heart of the jazz establishment, with some unbridled wailing by John Gilmore and Marshall Allen, spacey keyboard by Sun Ra and dense African-inspired percussion on "Watusa," as well as a few vocals like "Enlightenment". Let loose in the psychedelic ambience of the Electric Circus, the band responds with a more satisfying performance, including a 25-minute collective improvisation with some fine trombone work (likely Bernard Pettaway) and a reed blowout on "Calling Planet Earth" that's a musical highlight. It's worth seeking out, despite the sound.
Live in Cleveland, released for the first time, documents a 1975 concert by the band when it was functioning at an extraordinarily high level, whether doing vocal set pieces or extended jams. The opening "Astro Nation" is a long vocal jam over some fine funk electric bass by Dale Williams and congas, suggesting that the Arkestra could have been a great band without their instruments. Sun Ra is in great form, delivering an extended poem-sermon-vision on the medley of "Friendly Galaxy 3/ I am the Brother of the Wind/ I Pharoah," then topping it off with an extended synthesizer solo that stretches one's expectations of his sonic parameters, pressing the music to match his exploratory politics. A free jam segues back to Earth with Ra at the piano providing a fractured and filigreed introduction to Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady". It's a fitting choice since Sun Ra had assembled a saxophone section that advanced the sheer sound of the Ellington edition through swing to free improvisation. Here the perennially underrated Gilmoreat one point he even influenced John Coltraneturns in a brief solo of genuine harmonic originality.
In the late '70s, Ra continued to press into new territory, making his music even more pluralistic and hypnotic by adding disco beats and contemporary R&B textures without in any way compromising its ultimate integrity. On Jupiter reissues a very brief (29 minutes) LP from 1979 that demonstrates the changes, including electric guitars and Martin Denny-like sound effects for the shimmering ambience of the brief title track, then digging into the pop mainstream for "UFO," with glittering studio effects (reverb, compression, treble boost, panning from track to track) adding to the Arkestra's resemblance to a weirdly expanded version of Parliament/Funkadelic, an instance of reciprocal influence. The extended "Seductive Fantasy" returns the group to the more customaryif exoticground of acoustic space jazz. Marshall Allen's eerie oboe and the drummers create an interesting mix of forward and background movement to match the dissonant theme and the generally lush, relaxed quality of the band, at home in a musical terrain that's increasingly meaningful, whether alien or familiar."
Stuart Broomer -All About Jazz