Thursday, April 18, 2019

Sun Ra - 1966 - We Travel The Space Ways

Sun Ra
We Travel The Space Ways

01. Interplanetary Music 2:40
02. Eve 3:08
03. We Travel The Space Ways 3:21
04. Tapestry From An Asteroid 2:06
05. Space Loneliness 4:48
06. New Horizons 3:00
07. Velvet 4:36

1, 3, 4, 7 recorded Chicago, 1960
2, 5 recorded Chicago, 1961
6 recorded Chicago, 1956

Sun Ra: piano, cosmic tone organ (1)
Phil Cohran: violin-uke (1), vocal (1, 3), trumpet (4, 7)
Marshall Allen: percussion (1, 3), alto sax (2, 3, 4, 5, 7)
George Hudson: trumpet (3)
John Gilmore: percussion (1, 3, 6), vocal (1, 3), tenor sax (2, 3, 4, 5, 7)
Ronald Wilson: baritone sax (4)
Walter Strickland: trumpet (2, 5)
Art Hoyle: trumpet (6)
Julian Priester: trombone (6)
Dick Griffin: trombone (2, 5)
James Scales: alto sax (6)
Pat Patrick: baritone sax (6)
Wilburn Green: electric bass (6)
Ronnie Boykins: bass (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7), vocal (1, 3), percussion (3)
Robert Barry: drums (6)
Jon Hardy: drums (3, 4, 7)
Billy Mitchell: drums (2, 5)
William Cochran: drums (1)

We Travel The Spaceways (sometimes spelled "Space Ways") ranks as an essential Sun Ra collection. It's brief (less than 25 minutes), and though it was recorded in three separate, unrelated sessions over a five-year-span (making it a compilation rather than an album), it's chock full of "hits"—or what would be chart-toppers in the perfect Sun Ra universe. Alternate versions of all seven tracks appeared on other Ra albums; a number of these titles became perennial club and concert favorites; and Spaceways contained two of Sun Ra's beloved Arkestra "chants"—"Interplanetary Music" and the title track. The recordings were made in Chicago from 1956-1961, but the album was not released on Ra's Saturn label until 1966 , long after Sunny and his band had relocated to New York and zoomed light years beyond the forms etched in the grooves of that platter.

In retrospect, every period in Sun Ra's career seems transitional, but 1959-1961 especially so. It was during these years that he began to musically stray from his Chicago haunts and navigate through the weightless cosmos. In the mid- and late-1950s Sunny had begun to incorporate Egyptian and Ethiopian themes into a music that already drew on American and European traditions. Like many musical pilgrims, he was creating hybrids that would decades later be trivialized with the pretentious (and Eurocentric) marketing term "World Music." By 1959, Sun Ra was creating Other-World Music. Four titles on Spaceways—and arguably a fifth, "New Horizons"—are not of this Earth.

In the bebop/hard-bop periods, there was a movement from traditional pulse-driven jazz to abstract forms more suitable for concert halls than dance halls. Gunther Schuller defined Third Stream as "located halfway between jazz and classical music." Figures like George Russell, Charles Mingus, and Stan Kenton pioneered the field, which had a huge impact on 1950s jazz (and on classical). Sun Ra has never been considered an exemplar of Third Stream, but clearly he was influenced—and in some ways, perhaps, liberated—by this adventurous hybrid. Then again, Sun Ra, like Ellington, was sui generis. The marketing tags never quite applied.

Sun Ra's increasingly ambitious projects in Chicago foreshadowed the New York Choreographer's Workshop period, during which he often seemed to abandon jazz altogether. But then, jazz was born on Earth. By the time We Travel the Spaceways was released, Sun Ra was an ambassador to other planets. Martians, Venusians, and denizens of distant spheres hear things differently. Some have more than two ears. Sun Ra was exploring new ways to communicate.

A few notes on the tracks:

Another version of "Interplanetary Music" appears on Interstellar Low Ways, recorded at a different session. The Spaceways take is delivered with greater gusto. The thin audio quality of this recording exists on the tape, and every released format of this track over a half-century reflects the same limited spectrum. The performance, however, more than compensates. (The rest of the album offers richer fidelity.)

"Eve" with its ternary counterparts paints a musical portrait of a beautiful, exotic temptress (perhaps luring Sunny towards a Big Apple). A version from a different session appeared on Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth.

"We Travel the Spaceways" also appeared on When Sun Comes Out, but from a different session.
Discographer Robert Campbell wrote: "The bizarre whirring and quacking heard at the end of 'We Travel the Spaceways' comes from a toy robot with flashing lights; John Gilmore [said] that around this time the Arkestra would release the 'robots' into the audience during their performances. The band also used mechanical 'flying saucers' as props."

"Tapestry from an Asteroid" also appeared on The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra, recorded later in New York by Tom Wilson and released on Savoy.

"Space Loneliness," a blues that veers towards crime jazz, also appears on Interstellar Low Ways, but this version picks up the tempo a bit.

“New Horizons” comes from the 1956 RCA studio sessions for Jazz by Sun Ra, produced by Tom Wilson and released on his Transition label.

"Velvet" (a different version appears on Jazz in Silhouette) is a reversion to hard bop, and points less to where Sun Ra was going than what he was leaving. Nevertheless, over the years Sunny would periodically return to his jazz roots. He never fully abandoned traditional forms, which were an intrinsic part of his musical soul.

Sun Ra - 1968 - Sound of Joy

Sun Ra 
Sound of Joy

01. El Is a Sound of Joy 04:04
02. Overtones of China 03:24
03. Two Tones 03:41
04. Paradise 04:30
05. Planet Earth 04:24
06. Ankh 06:31
07. Saturn 04:00
08. Reflections in Blue 06:21
09. El Viktor 02:33
10. As You Once Were 04:20
11. Dreams Come True 03:49

The cover states this was recorded in November 1957. However, in the Sun Ra Omniverse book, Robert L. Campell wrote that this was recorded "toward the end of 1956."
This material was originally recorded for the Transition label, but they folded before the album could be released.
Six of these compositions were first released on Visits Planet Earth in 1966. Tracks A3, B2, B3 and B4 are the same recordings as on that LP. Tracks A2 and A5 are present in different recordings from another session on that LP.

Sun Ra: piano, Wurlitzer electric piano
Art Hoyle: trumpet, percussion
Dave Young: trumpet
John Avant: trombone
Pat Patrick: alto sax, baritone sax, percussion
John Gilmore: tenor sax, percussion
Charles Davis: baritone sax, percussion
Victor Sproles: bass
William Cochran: drums
Jim Herndon: tympani, timbales
Clyde Williams: vocals (10, 11)

The history of the record - Ra recorded it in 1957 for Transition, but they went out of business and it didn't come out until 1968. Transition did release a Ra album in 1956, "Sun Song", before they went under. So Ra had practically no visibility in the consumer market until the late 60's, while making incredible music. He released two albums on his own Saturn label (small-scale)in 1956 and 57, "SuperSonic Jazz" and "Jazz in Silhouette", and later released many sessions from the late 50's on his Saturn label; these are now available on CDs on the Evidence labels. One Saturn that he put out in 1967 (before this material had been issued by anyone) contained 4 of the tracks recorded here ("Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth", Side B of the Saturn LP and tracks 1 - 4 of the must-have Evidence CD).
The session here is a good one though I feel the mastering is not as good as on the louder Evidence releases (the 4 tracks lifted from here sound stronger on "Visits Planet Earth", with all frequencies boosted). Had this been released in 1957, it could have and should have been well acclaimed and might have thrust Ra into the limelight. The tracks are lovely orchestrated big-band jazz.

Recorded in December 1956, the second album Ra recorded for Tom Wilson’s label is a much more sedate affair than Jazz by Sun Ra and Supersonic Jazz, both recorded earlier in the year. The frantic pace of some of the first album is mostly absent, as are the more typical big band arrangements. The first half focuses more on Ra’s idiosyncratic compositions, which do not sound like the jazz music of the day and some have taken to comparing to the type of music known as ‘exotica.’ The band are clearly having a lot of fun with these pieces, and it’s hard not to burst out laughing with all of the daft ‘chinese-isms’ of ‘Overtones of China’, assisted and abetted by one member of the band clearly going beserk with a bunch of gongs.

Side A includes one fairly typical hard bop tune composed and performed by the two baritone sax players in a quartet setting, and the second side focuses on more typical ‘jazz’ like sounds. Unfortunately, I find the second side’s opener, ‘Ankh’, to somewhat drag for the first half, and I find it really doesn’t help the flow of the album. It’s a corny sounding melody over a fairly slow swing beat. Perhaps Ra himself sensed this, as when it’s his turn to solo he delivers one of his most bonkers sounding solos yet and thereafter a second theme is introduced by the horns and the piece is much improved. ‘Saturn’ and ‘El Viktor’ are wonderfully convoluted jazz performed at a cracking pace, although the former isn’t quite as energetic as the version recorded and released earlier in the year as a single.

The playing is a lot looser here than Sun Song too, the Arkestra feel a lot more at ease and you can hear all the performances come through. This improved dynamic allows Sun Ra's piano to come out in a way that's really gorgeous--it's something I often miss on his other albums (though check out his live 77 solo piano performance!)

It's worth mentioning that a lot of the Sun Ra standards are here (Two Tones, Ankh, Saturn, Reflections in Blue...plenty of songs will hear again in different iterations.) What we end up with then is an early collection of some of Ra's best songs with some really solid performances that actually swing!

With Sound of Joy, everything just seems to be right. I think Angels and Demons may be a stronger release as far as pushing the arkestra ahead musically, but being progressive isn't all that counts. Sound of Joy finds the middle ground and makes a small masterpiece out of it.

One caveat for the collector: about half the tracks here are also collected on the Evidence CD 'Visits Planet Earth / Interstellar Low Ways', so if you already have that disc, this might be a tough purchase. Unfortunately, one of my favorite songs here doesn't make it on to the Evidence disc.

Sun Ra - 1957 - Super Sonic Jazz

Sun Ra
Super Sonic Jazz

01. India
02. Sunology
03. Advice To Medics
04. Super Blonde
05. Soft Talk
06. Sunology - Part 2
07. Kingdom Of Not
08. Portrait Of The Living Sky
09. Blues At Midnight
10. El Is A Sound Of Joy
11. Springtime In Chicago
12. Medicine For A Nightmare

Sun Ra (piano, electric piano, Wurlitzer, Space Gong, percussion)
John Gilmore (tenor sax and/or percussion 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12)
Pat Patrick (alto & baritone sax and/or percussion 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12)
Arthur Hoyle (trumpet 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12)
Charles Davis (baritone sax 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)
Julian Priester (trombone 4, 5, 12)
James Scales (alto sax 4, 5, 11, 12)
Ronnie Boykins (bass 1, 2, 6, 7)
Victor Sproles (bass 8, 9, 10)
Wilburn Green (electric bass 4, 5, 11, 12)
William Cochran (drums 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9,10)
Robert Barry (drums 4, 5, 11, 12)
Jim Herndon (a.k.a. Hernden) (tympani and timbali)

Recorded at Balkan Studio and RCA Studios, Chicago, 1956

Recorded in 1956, but released in 1957, Supersonic Jazz is arguably the first long-playing album by Sun Ra and His Arkestra on his Saturn label. However, it was not recorded as a debut. Rather, the album was assembled from tapes recorded during a number of sessions at two Chicago studios (RCA Victor and Balkan), and several tracks had been released as singles before their inclusion on this album. (Sunny's first fully realized commercial album was 1957's Jazz by Sun Ra, produced by Tom Wilson for the soon-defunct Transition label.)

Before these sessions, Sunny was still arranging for the Red Saunders Orchestra and singer Joe Williams, in addition to arranging for and coaching doo-wop ensembles. As Sunny's ambitions achieved liftoff, the Arkestra coalesced, began building a repertoire (mostly of the leader's originals), and made forays into studios. Deciding it was time for commercial releases, Sunny and business partner Alton Abraham launched Saturn (sometimes called El Saturn) as a record company in 1956.

As a first offering, Supersonic Jazz is a pinnacle Sun Ra release. While reflecting many prevailing bebop, Latin, and R&B conventions of the mid-1950s, it's evident that Sun Ra's musical voice and vision were starting to propel him away from the jazz mainstream. Biographer John Szwed finds on these recordings "characteristics which seemed alien to swing, bebop, or the new, more soulful and hard-edged music which was coming to be called hard bop."

"India," "Sunology," and "Portrait Of The Living Sky" delve into the mystic rhythms of an ancient Egyptian style. Jim Herndon and his tympani add a unique flair to the arrangements alongside other Arkestra members doubling on percussion. There are, in fact, a number of flavors on the album that seek an East-meets-West fusion, a virtual "Ancient Exotica."

Some titles such as "Portrait of the Living Sky" and "Kingdom of Not" appear on Supersonic Jazz and nowhere else; they do not recur in the massive Ra discography of studio, club, and concert recordings.

"Advice To Medics," which sounds like a living room recording, was captured during a 1957 rehearsal with vocalist Clyde Williams (who is not heard on the track). Some Ra scholars have speculated that the recording was reproduced at the wrong speed—recorded at 3¾ IPS, but played back at 7½ IPS. "Blues At Midnight," the first recorded rendition of this timeless Ra standard (a longer version appears on Jazz in Silhouette) allows the band, who were the cream of Chicago’s bebop stalwarts, a chance to stretch out.

This is the first album issued on Sun Ra's El Saturn label, and one of the very best of his 1950s Chicago period. Recorded in '56, the prescience of some of these performances is amazing. The solo electric piano piece "Advice to Medics" and the modal "India," with gongs aplenty, simply have no precedent except for Earl Hines' 1940 electric keyboard workout "child of a Disordered Mind." More importantly, all the music is terrific, including the straight bebop workout "Super Blonde." Ra's horn writing shows individuality and Ellington roots. Soloists include Pat Patrick (mostly on Jackie-esque alto here), John Gilmore, Julian Priester, and Chicago legend Art Hoyle on trumpet. A bonus is the album's original liners, perhaps written by Alton Abraham or Ra himself, plus excellent new notes by Tom Moon.

Sun Ra had only been heading his Arkestra for a couple of years when they recorded the 12 songs featured on this 1956 session. But while the arrangements, ensemble work, and solos are not as ambitious, expansive, or free-wheeling as they became on later outings, the groundwork was laid on such cuts as "India," "Sunology," and one of the first versions of "Blues at Midnight." Ra's band already had the essential swinging quality and first-class soloists, and he had gradually challenged them with compositions that did not rely on conventional hard bop riffs, chord changes, and structure but demanded a personalized approach and understanding of sound and rhythm far beyond standard thinking. You can hear in Ra's solos and those of John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, Charles Davis, and others an emerging freedom and looseness which would explode in the future.