Saturday, April 13, 2019

Sun Ra - 1957 - Jazz By Sun Ra

Sun Ra
Jazz By Sun Ra

01. Brainville 4:29
02. Call For All Demons 4:30
03. Transition 3:40
04. Possession 5:00
05. Street Named Hell 3:55
06. Lullaby For Realville 4:40
07. Future 3:15
08. New Horizons 3:05
09. Fall Off The Log 4:00
10. Sun Song 3:40

Recorded July 12, 1956 Universal Recording Studio, Chicago.
Originally issued by Transition Records #J-10.

Alto Saxophone – James Scales
Baritone Saxophone – Pat Patrick
Bass – Richard Evans
Drums – Robert Barry
Electric Bass – Wilburn Green
Piano – Sun Ra
Tenor Saxophone – John Gilmore
Timpani, Timbales – Jim Herndon
Trombone – Julian Priester
Trumpet – Art Hoyle, Dave Young

'Jazz By Sun Ra' was the debut album length recording by Sun Ra. The LP originally appeared on the short-lived and pioneering label Transition Records,which was headed by the young Tom Wilson, and released a number of unique jazz albums in this period by the likes of Cecil Taylor and Donald Byrd. Transition releases tended to include elaborate if home made looking packaging more perhaps in tune with today's buyers and artists than those of the 1950s, When originally released, 'Jazz By Sun Ra' came with an extensive booklet featuring words and photos of Sun Ra and his Arkestra. from which we excerpt Sun Ra's own comments on the album contents. Wilson was to continue in an extensive and successful career as a major label A&R man/producer, with a range from Bob Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone' to the first 2 Velvet Underground albums and way beyond...he was to remain close friends with Sun Ra, re-entering the story on a number of occasions in years to come. The LP features original compositions by Sun Ra along with one by Arkestral bassist Richard Evans. The single non-Arkestral composition is Possession, by Harry Revel, which had been written for Les Baxter's slightly bizarre Exotica album oddity Perfume Set to Music, which shows just how wide ranging Sun's listening and how open his mind was to the unusual even in the 1950s!!. Remastered original 1955 recording of Sun Ra's earliest released LP.

This essential title is also available under the moniker of Sun Song (1956). Regardless of its name, this long player contains some of Sun Ra's most complex but most accessible efforts. Ra had been an active performer since the late 1940s, recording with his various combos or "Arkestra(s)," as he dubbed them. Since this was the first widely distributed platter that the artist cut, it is often erroneously referred to as his debut. The tracks were documented by then-unknown Tom Wilson. If the name rings a bell, it may be because Wilson would go on to produce such rock luminaries as Frank Zappa, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and the Velvet Underground, among others. Ra's highly mathematical approach to bop was initially discounted by noted jazz critic Nat Hentoff as "repetitious," with phrases "built merely on riffs with little development." In retrospect, however, it is obvious there is much more going on here. Among the musical innovations woven into the uptempo "Brainville" and "Transition," are advanced time signatures coupled with harmonic scales based on Ra's mathematical equations. Not to be missed is the lush elegance within the delicate, if not intricate arrangements heard on "Possession," as well as the equally involved "Sun Song" -- both of which take on an air of sophistication in their deceptive simplicity. Ra's original LP jacket comments can be found within the liner notes of the Sun Song compact disc. This is noteworthy as one of the rare occasions that Sun Ra sought to explain not only his influences, but his methods of composition and modes of execution as well. Jazz is arguably the most accessible work in the Sun Ra catalog, as well as one of the most thoroughly and repeatedly listenable.

Sun Ra's first album was produced in 1956-57 by Tom Wilson for the legendary—and short-lived—Transition Records label. Wilson was fresh out of Harvard (he graduated cum laude in 1955) and launched the Cambridge-based label with audacious early recording dates by Donald Byrd, Cecil Taylor, Jay Migliori, Doug Watkins, Paul Chambers, Pepper Adams, Curtis Fuller, and Louis Smith. (Not all recordings were issued at the time.) How he hooked up with Ra—then based in Chicago and virtually unknown elsewhere—is a bit of a mystery.

The set was recorded in July 1956 and issued in 1957. Sun Ra had only recently formed and named the Arkestra, although he had been working with these players on and off for a number of years. The styles shift from hard bop to Third Stream, from Exotica to Ra's emerging concept of Space Jazz. Although the album received very little notice at the time of its original release, it served as a foundational statement for Sun Ra and hints at what was to come.

Transition went out of business in 1958, the recorded masters were sold to various established labels, and Wilson went on to a legendary career as a producer at Savoy, United Artists, Columbia, and MGM-Verve. Along the way he produced the first two albums by both the Mothers of Invention and the Velvet Underground, as well as the debut of Simon and Garfunkel and four Bob Dylan albums

This album is a tricky one. If you'd no knowledge it was Sun Ra, no clue as to what was to come, Sun Song would probably never register as anything beyond a pleasant late big-band romp. Certainly next to Davis' work during this period (Milestones, 'Round about midnight) feels like just 'so much more of the same', though still a very enjoyable listen. That isn't to say that aren't clues that something is amiss. Side one (I have the vinyl) contains a few moments that suggest the vastly more sophisticated and at times borderline experimental approach we'd see on Angels and Demons at Play. There's also familiar numbers--passages that would grow into monsters down the road.

Contrasting Sun Ra to Davis is a weird sort of thing, because while Davis pushed the envelope of jazz hard, Sun Ra moved too quickly. The leap between Sun Song and Angles and Demons at Play is massive while still only one small step compared to the leap to albums like Secrets of the Sun or Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy--and even then, the distance is little more than a couple years. Even with a good label and distribution, I'd doubt the jazz world could have kept up: If Davis was a race car pushing jazz forward, then Sun Ra was a rocket ship, and pretty soon he'd be too far out of the stratosphere to even bear much comparison to what had been jazz.

With Sun Song we hear a really good but unsurprising album; he'd not even begun to redefine jazz and there's no real hint of his afro-cosmology. Regardless, it's always good to hear Sun Ra play more standard, melodic fare, and he's a good and talented composer--making this a good one to have around, albeit not a particularly overwhelming release by the man from Saturn.