Thursday, May 9, 2019

Sun Ra - 1966 - When Angels Speak of Love

Sun Ra
When Angels Speak of Love

01. Celestial Fantasy 5:52
02. The Idea Of It All 7:30
03. Ecstasy Of Being 9:50
04. When Angels Speak Of Love 4:32
05. Next Stop Mars 17:55

Sun Ra: piano, Clavioline, gong
Walter Miller: trumpet
Marshall Allen: oboe, alto sax, percussion
Danny Davis: alto sax
John Gilmore: tenor sax, percussion
Pat Patrick: baritone sax, percussion
Robert Cummings: bass clarinet
Ronnie Boykins: bass
Clifford Jarvis: drums
Tommy "Bugs" Hunter: drums, percussion, tape reverb, engineer
Ensemble: vocals

When Angels Speak of Love, released in 1966 on Sun Ra's Saturn label, is a rarity, there having been limited pressings (150 copies, by one estimate), which were sold thru the mail and at concerts and club dates. The tracks were taped in New York during two 1963 sessions at the Choreographer's Workshop, a rehearsal space/recording den with warehouse acoustics. Ra spent countless hours at the CW from 1961 to 1964 sharpening the Arkestra during exhaustive musical huddles. John Corbett calls this "one of the most continuous, best-documented periods of Ra's work"; much tape from these seminal sessions has survived and been issued on LP, CD and digitally.

Following the musical trajectory Ra launched shortly after his 1961 exodus from Chicago to New York, the works on When Angels Speak are less composed than directed. Despite the seemingly unbound playing, it is an orderly chaos. Ra rejected the term "free jazz." (His views on freedom generally are, to put it kindly, complex; he referred to his band as "the Ra Jail," explaining, "my jail is the best jail in the world, they learn things in my jail.") Yet there is undeniable liberation in this music. There's also, thanks to Tommy Hunter's freestyle tape reverb, a pre-psychedelic quality.

Ra biographer John Szwed observed in his book Space is the Place: "When Angels Speak of Love was considered a bizarre record when it was heard even three years later, made more bizarre by extreme echo, horns straining for the shrillest notes possible, rhythms layered, their polyrhythmic effect exaggerated by massive reverberation (which was abruptly turned off and on). 'Next Stop Mars' is the album centerpiece, a long work which opens with a space chant, followed by Marshall Allen and John Gilmore taking chances on their horns beyond what almost any other musician would dare at that time. Sun Ra played behind them, relentlessly spinning around a single tonal center with two-handed independence, then rumbling thunderously at the bottom of the keyboard against Ronnie Boykins's bass, a clangor made heavier by electronic enhancement."

William Ruhlmann at AllMusic observed, "Sun Ra's music is often described as being so far outside the jazz mainstream as to be less a challenge to it than a largely irrelevant curiosity. But When Angels Speak of Love is very much within then-current trends in jazz as performed by such innovators as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Walter Miller's trumpet on 'The Idea of It All,' for example, indicates he'd been listening to Miles Davis, even as John Gilmore's squealing tenor suggests Coltrane; and, on 'Ecstasy of Being,' what John Corbett calls Danny Davis' 'excruciated alto' suggests Coleman. Ra himself plays busy, seemingly formless passages that are reminiscent of Cecil Taylor. This is a Sun Ra album that is more conventionally unconventional than most, with tracks you could program next to those of his 1960s contemporaries and have them fit right in."

Known Saturn LP copies of When Angels Speak were pressed in mono (as was a CD on Evidence), but stereo versions of three tracks have surfaced. Two (the title track and an abridged version of "Next Stop Mars") were included on a 1989 Blast First/Restless Records release. In 2016, a stereo "Celestial Fantasy" was discovered in Michael D. Anderson's Sun Ra Music Archive on a session reel.

The mono version of "Next Stop Mars" clocks in at 18 minutes, but the stereo version just 12. Rather than having been cut for space constraints (Ra would have scoffed at the notion that space has constraints), the abridgment might be Ra revisionism. The bandleader was involved with the BF/RR project, having provided tapes (the whereabouts of which are now unknown). The fade is organic, occurring during a rumbling piano sustain after the band stops playing. Perhaps Ra exercised a composer's prerogative, having decided that from a vantage point of 26 years' reflection, the piece had climaxed at the 12-minute mark (or that by 1989 advanced interplanetary rocketry had helped the Arkestra more quickly reach Mars).

We found pitch and speed differences between mono and stereo mixes. In fact, there were pitch variations within particular versions—the mono "Celestial Fantasy" alters pitch in the final 40 seconds. For this digital edition, all pitch variants have been roughly normalized (if the word "normal" can apply to anything associated with Sun Ra). But we extend a caveat: if you're hypersensitive to pitch, don't listen to Sun Ra. We prescribe Mel Tormé.

An interesting session from 1963. The 17+ minute "Next Stop Mars" is the earliest extended work I've heard by Sun Ra, and is a pretty wild track with lots of overdriven saxophones. The echo/reverb effects used on the superb Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy make appearances here and are used sparingly enough that they create a nice variety. But the session, while enjoyable, is a little samey overall. Gilmore and Pat Patrick are, as always, a treat to listen to, especially once the Arkestra began exploring "free" music like some of these pieces, but some of this album, such as "Ecstasy of Being" doesn't knock me out the way other contemporary sessions from Sun Ra do. Part of this is that the Arkestra was in an unusually well-documented patch here, and the minute variations integrated into each successive album don't really register much when the work is taken in toto. In short - while this is a fun listen, with a particular nod to the excellent "The Idea of It All," and there's nothing here that's less than well-done and enjoyable, there are other more dynamically exciting albums from this period. Try Cosmic Tones first and get to this shortly thereafter.

Sun Ra - 1967 - Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy

Sun Ra
Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy

01 And Otherness
02 Thither And Yon
03 Adventure-Equation
04Moon Dance
05 Voice Of Space

Sun Ra: Hammond B-3 organ, Clavioline, celeste, percussion
Marshall Allen: oboe, percussion
Danny Davis: alto sax, flute
John Gilmore: bass clarinet, percussion
Bernard Pettaway: bass trombone
Pat Patrick: baritone sax
Robert Cummings: bass clarinet
Ronnie Boykins: bass
Clifford Jarvis: drums
James Jacson: percussion
Tommy Hunter: percussion, reverb

Tracks 1 and 2 recorded at the Choreographer's Workshop, March 1963
Tracks 3, 4, 5 recorded at the Tip Top Club, Brooklyn, 1963
Tracks 6 recording location unknown, ca. late 1964–early 1965

Recorded in 1963 but not released until 1967 on Sun Ra's Saturn label, Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy is one of the more notorious of the artist's early New York releases. It near-completely rejects existing notions of jazz in favor of conducted chaos, offering a template for the unknown. Therapeutic for some, electroshock for others. In its lysergic abstractness, Cosmic Tones prefigures by a few years the outer dimensions of psychedelia (which was inspired by psychosis-replicating chemicals), and foreshadows some of the wilder studio escapades of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. (Early in their careers—though a decade apart—Zappa and Sun Ra shared a producer: Tom Wilson.)

The album—or at least its title—may have originated when Sun Ra's manager Alton Abraham arranged a performance for patients at a Chicago psychiatric facility. Biographer John Szwed, in his definitive Ra bio Space Is the Place, describes the scene:

"The group of patients assembled for this early experiment in musical therapy included catatonics and severe schizophrenics, but Sunny approached the job like any other, making no concessions in his music. While he was playing, a woman who it was said had not moved or spoken for years got up from the floor, walked directly to his piano, and cried out, ‘Do you call that music?’ Sunny was delighted with her response and told the story for years afterwards as evidence of the healing powers of music."

The openers, "And Otherness" and "Thither and Yon," were recorded at the Choreographer's Workshop (where the Arkestra regularly rehearsed from 1962 to 1964). "Adventure Equation," "Moon Dance," and "Voice of Space" were recorded at Brooklyn's Tip Top Club, reportedly at 10 a.m., an off-hours booking facilitated by drummer Tommy "Bugs" Hunter, who gigged there at night with Sarah McLawler's trio. The acoustics are ad hoc, and on "Adventure Equation" the club's phone can be heard ringing during two passages. The reverb overload on "Thither and Yon" and "Voice of Space" were the handiwork of Hunter, who jerryrigged cables on his Ampex 602 tape recorder and controlled the echo by adjusting the output volume.

Arkestra saxophonists John Gilmore and Marshall Allen are present, but playing bass clarinet and oboe respectively, while sax is covered by Pat Patrick and brash newcomer Danny Davis. Sunny plays Clavioline and percussion (as do others), but no piano. The Arkestra rarely plays in ensemble mode, but instead alternately deploys in smaller configurations, almost chamber-style.

Although most of the album is a disjointed improvisational tapestry, "Adventure Equation" displays rhythmic cohesiveness, as does "Moon Dance," a jaunty exercise in "Latin voodoo" with a groove that won't quit. The track features Sunny on the Tip-Top's Hammond B-3 organ.

The distorted saxophone passages on "And Otherness" exist in that condition on the master tape. These artifacts cannot be removed without altering the documented performance. However, on Cosmic Tones, this may be a feature, not a bug.

"Twilight," a previously unreleased recording that might have originated at the Tip-Top Club, is marred by significant noise, possibly from poor storage, tape degradation, or sub-par recording conditions. The track may have appeared on an obscure Saturn release or demo, as the surface noise sounds like a poor vinyl pressing or an acetate cutting. The instrumentation sounds like celeste, oboe, French horn, and percussion. Sunny had just two regular French horn players over the years, and Vincent Chancey wasn’t yet on the scene. That leaves Robert Northern as the only other possibility, which would date the track to late 1964 or early 1965.

Fuck me. Sun Ra knocked it out of the park with this one. Barely registering on the jazz spectrum, this album could be more aptly described as 'groovy free improvisation' if there ever was a thing.
The out-of-worldly feel is achieved and then some, especially with relation to the percussion and song structure. Every song is like another world, conjuring up vastly different images and employing new techniques and sounds. Sun Ra is oddly absent from most of this album, and utilizes himself as another sound in his arsenal rather than a central figure, taking on the role of conductor. The two sides of this LP are also noticeably different, as though they were separate statements, but still manage to tie together cohesively.

The first side focuses heavily on improvisation, seemingly with little conceived notion of composition. Adventure-equation is perhaps the most jazz-like track, with bass clarinet and saxophone improvising over a cathartic drum track. Moon Dance, starting side 2, is a highlight featuring a steady, groovy bassline foundation which is constructed upon by the Arkestra. The last song is like a proto Can Aumgn, with a very dragged out spacious feel, and drums teetering on the edge of destruction. Easily one of my favourite Sun Ra pieces to date, and not one to miss out on.      

Sun Ra - 1963 - When Sun Comes Out

Sun Ra
When Sun Comes Out

01. Circe
02. The Nile
03. Brazilian Sun
04. We Travel The Spaceways
05. Calling Planet Earth
06. Dancing Shadows
07. The Rain-Maker
08. When Sun Comes Out

Sun Ra: Piano, Electric Celeste, Percussion
Walter Miller: Trumpet
John Gilmore: Tenor Sax, Drums, Percussion
Teddy Nance: Trombone
Bernard Pettaway: Trombone
Marshall Allen: Flute, Alto Sax, Percussion
Pat Patrick: Baritone Sax, Bongos, Drums on "We Travel The Spaceways"
Danny Davis: Alto Sax
Ronnie Boykins: Bass
Clifford Jarvis: Drums
Lex Humphries: Drums on "Calling Planet Earth"
Tommy Hunter: Gong, Drums, Tape Effects
Theda Barbara: Vocal on "Circe"

Recorded at The Choreographers Workshop, New York, November 1962

When Sun Comes Out was the first release on Sun Ra's Saturn label to be recorded in New York. Released in 1963, it was preceded by The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra, which had been recorded in Newark, New Jersey (and produced by Tom Wilson, who issued it on Savoy in 1961). When Sun Comes Out was also the first release to contain recordings set down at the Choreographer's Workshop, which served as a longtime rehearsal space for Sunny & the Arkestra. The venue would be a rich source of historic material for future albums.

Stylistically, the move to New York marked Sunny's journey beyond swing, bebop, hard bop, and R&B. This advance is abundantly reflected on When Sun Comes Out. After being neglected by fans and press in the final stages of his Chicago period, Sun Ra responded to the New York jazz community's embrace by pushing the form in new directions—often to the point that what he was playing wasn't jazz. But the only category that mattered to Sun Ra was music.

When Sun Comes Out is percussion-centric, and not just as backdrops—on many tracks whatever's being hit with a stick (or palms) is on top of the mix. Sun Ra's piano, some brass, and a quartet of saxophones compete for airspace with an arsenal of drums, congas and bongos, bells and cowbells, shakers and gongs (a good deal of it handled by the reed section). In fact, the mix often defies professional engineering standards, as musical hardware that usually provides the foundation occasionally dominates the lead instruments.

The horns are more aggressive than in the Chicago years, Sunny experiments with atonality on the keyboard, and on many tracks he dispenses with conventional structure. The Arkestra here includes four saxophonists (John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, and newcomer Danny Davis, then just 17), who take liberties to extend the instrument's vocabulary, their solos often independent of the rhythm bed. Sun Ra was traversing the universe, and there's a lot of space out there. On this album the explosive drummer Clifford Jarvis makes his recording debut with the Arkestra, a relationship that would extend on and off for a decade and a half. There's also a fun ensemble vocal—identified as having been performed by "Arkestra Unit"—on a remake of "We Travel the Spaceways."

This remastered edition includes a number of sonic treats:

• The complete version of the opening track "Circe" (featuring wordless vocals by Theda Barbara); the Saturn release omitted most of the introductory gong sequence (by Tommy Hunter).

• The LP's side two tracks (here 6 – 9) in stereo from the master tape. All known pressings of the LP were in mono.

• The previously unreleased part two of the percussive composition "The Nile," featuring a haunting flute solo by Marshall Allen.

• The complete "Dimensions in Time," recorded at the Choreographer's Workshop around this time but released only in an abridged version (and titled "Primitive") on the mid-1970s hybrid release Space Probe.

A consistently excellent Ra album, which is a little unusual, as most of his albums do have some major low points on them. Side a is particularly good, and very listenable too, not a term so readily associated with a Sun Ra album. This side tends to be really low key, quiet, brooding and mainly just percussive. There's even a vocal number on this side "We Travel the Spaceways". I say vocal, until June Tyson joined them, vocal numbers were always more of a chanting/talking affair. The B side is quite standard mid to high tempo bop. There's some excellent squawk/noise fest stuff at the end of "Calling Planet Earth". This album is well worth investigating, and a pretty decent introduction to anyone who's new to, but daunted by the mighty Ra discography.

The New York period saw Ra focusing far more on percussion backdrops as opposed to horn arrangements (virtually everyone on the album gets a percussion credit), and everything from the percussion to the horn solos to Ra's piano playing took a more aggressive stance. John Gilmore's tenor solo on "Calling Planet Earth" throws the bop rule book out the window, and he is heard developing a more extended vocabulary of skronks and squeals. This track exemplifies the change in sound and focus from the Chicago days.... When Sun Comes Out is a first glimpse into an era that would culminate in some of the Arkestra's most renowned recordings.

Sun Ra - 1965 - Secrets Of The Sun

Sun Ra
Secrets Of The Sun

01. Friendly Galaxy 4:35
02. Solar Differentials 6:28
03. Space Aura 5:26
04. Love In Outer Space 4:44
05. Reflects Motion 9:07
06. Solar Symbols 2:42

Sun Ra: piano, gong (1, 8), sun harp (8)
Marshall Allen: flute (1, 5–7), alto sax (3), morrow (4), percussion (8)
Pat Patrick: flute (1), baritone sax (3), space drums (4), percussion (8)
John Gilmore: bass clarinet (1, 4), space bird sounds (2), tenor sax (3, 5–7), space drums (4), percussion (8)
Al Evans: flugelhorn (1)
Eddie Gale: trumpet (3)
Calvin Newborn: electric guitar (1)
Ronnie Boykins: bass (1–7)
Tommy Hunter: drums (1), space bird sounds (2), percussion (5–8), recording engineer and tape effects (reverb)
C. Scoby Stroman: drums (2, 3, 5–7)
Jimhmi Johnson: percussion (4)
Art Jenkins: space vocals (2)
unknown vocalist (5)

Secrets of the Sun is one of many Sun Ra albums which originated from sessions at the Choreographer's Workshop, a West 51st Street venue which served as the Arkestra's rehearsal space from roughly 1962 to 1965. The band rehearsed there endlessly, and more often than not an open-reel tape deck was running. These sessions produced tracks which (without organizing logic) achieved first commercial release on Saturn LPs throughout the 1960s and '70s. (Many unreleased tracks are first appearing on these post-2014 "Sun-tennial" digital remasters.)

Secrets of the Sun was recorded in 1962, but didn't appear on Saturn vinyl until '65. Per what had long been the bandleader's trademark, many titles point to destinations beyond Earth's stratosphere, while paradoxically echoing rhythms and forms inspired by Africa. And in what was a recurring motif of the Choreographer's milieu, the recordings themselves have a raw quality, replete with warehouse acoustics, distortion, erratic mic proximity, and a limited frequency spectrum. It's garage jazz. As on many of the Workshop sessions, drummer Tommy Hunter served as recording engineer, and his proto-psychedelic reverb saturates a few of these performances.

The album features an arsenal of percussion, often in the hands of Arkestra horn players, reinforced by the thumping bass of Ronnie Boykins. Sun Ra's developing Afrocentric consciousness inspired many of these relentlessly thunderous grooves. Despite the sustained pounding, there is a sparseness to most arrangements, fewer instruments in the mix, with piano often serving as counterpoint to the rhythmic clatter. It's less an orchestra than an expanded combo. There are few "genre" works on Secrets, and much less of what was conventionally considered "jazz" during Sunny's Chicago roost. New York, the artist's recently adopted hometown, was serving to liberate the composer's imagination.

Secrets marked the debut (on "Solar Differentials") of idiosyncratic vocalist Art Jenkins, who thereafter appeared sporadically on Saturn albums (and beyond) in cameo roles. As recounted in John Szwed's bio Space is the Place, Jenkins auditioned for Sun Ra as an R&B singer, but the bandleader rejected him because he wanted a singer who could achieve the "impossible." "The possible has been tried and failed," Sunny told Jenkins. "Now I want to try the impossible." Jenkins eventually chanced upon the technique of singing into a backwards ram's horn, creating a human wah-wah. "Now that's impossible," said Ra, and Jenkins got the gig as "space vocalist." Calvin Newborn's electric guitar on the opening number is a fresh sound; the band rarely worked with guitarists during this period. Several of these tracks — "Friendly Galaxy" and "Love in Outer Space" — became concert staples in years ahead.

This remastered edition contains the premiere release of the full "Reflects Motion" three-part suite, and one previously unreleased track from the session tapes, "Project Black Mass."

Marking a transition in its development between the advanced swing of the early Chicago-era recordings and the increased free-form experimentation of its New York tenure, this album also reveals the first recorded versions of two Ra standards, "Friendly Galaxy" and "Love in Outer Space." Accessible, yet segueing into vanguard territory, this album highlights a fertile period in the Arkestra's history. Looser and more aggressive than its Chicago recordings, these pieces find the Arkestra pushing at the limits of harmony and tonality.' Troy Collins

Solar Differentials introduced Art Jenkins, a new "Space Vocalist". Jenkins had sought an audition with Sun Ra a few months before the recording, and sang some rhythm-and-blues tunes for him. Sonny told him that he had a nice voice, but what he was looking for was a singer who could do the impossible ("The possible has been tried and failed; now I want to try the impossible"). Art came back one day when they were recording at the Choreographer's Workshop, and dead set on getting on a record somehow, rummaged through a bag of miscellaneous instruments looking for something he could play. But every time he picked up something, someone in the band would tell him to leave it alone. When no one objected when he pulled a ram's horn from the bottom of the bag he began to sing into it, but backwards, with his mouth to the large opening, so that it gave out a weird sound which he made weirder by moving his hand over the small opening to alter the tone. Sonny broke out laughing, "Now that's impossible!" and asked him to improvise wordlessly on the record.' John F Szwed,

If you're not familiar with Sun Ra's music or jazz in general this is probably not the album to start with (Sun Ra is VERY sensible to the contemporary listener and a great starting point for those who have never listened to jazz before and are more well versed in styles like rock and electronica). Those who are more familiar Sun Ra's music will find this album to be one of his more exciting collections. The first six tracks had me a bit puzzled, there seemed to be something missing from what I usually expect from a Sun Ra album; the big band banger: a track that really shows off the performers' abilities to play together. However, when I heard the first few bars of the ultimate "Flight to Mars" I knew immediately that Secrets of the Sun was going to provide me some closure in my need to hear an all out big band extravaganza. The unmistakably Sun Ra intro to this piece really approximates what it would be like to hear the band from Saturn as you walked by their rehearsal studio, street busy, on a hot summer day. In its anxious bowed string glissandos, folky modes and percussion instrumentation, and the banter buried underneath what is typically thought of as the "music" on a sound recording, it is truly a remarkable arrangement of sounds. Although only 43 seconds long it surely is one of the most exciting sections of this album.
The latter performances on "Flight to Mars" are just as exhilarating and to my ears they capture the euphoria of being on a journey with much time and space ahead of you - the knowledge that there is still, and will always be, fruitfully unexplored domains. This makes the piece somewhat autobiographical of the mission of Sun Ra and the Solar Arkestra in their music and their philosophy. (My evidence for this is that Secrets of the Sun is only 1965 and the Arkestra wouldn't go on to make Lanquidity [the most progressive album of all time] until fucking 1978). Under holistic assessment Secrets of the Sun really does have a lot to offer. The first six tracks are great in their own right. The compositions/improvisations are soaked in intriguing modulation and reverb and induce a visualization of outer space in all its loneliness and singularity. What's best about the comprovisational style of Sun Ra is that it's ever-transient; moving from one place very familiar to another that has not been seen as much. In essence this album was super inspiring and I highly recommend it to any avid listener.

Sun Ra - 1965 - Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow

Sun Ra
Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow

01. Cluster Of Galaxies
02. Ankh
03. Solar Drums
04. The Outer Heavens
05. Infinity Of The Universe
06. Lights On A Satellite
07. Kosmos In Blue

Sun Ra: piano, sun harp, spiral percussion gong, dragon drum
Marshall Allen: alto sax (2, 4), bells (3), percussion (5)
John Gilmore: tenor sax (2, 4, 6, 7, 8), percussion (3, 5)
Pat Patrick: Thunder drums (1), baritone sax (2, 6), clarinet (4), percussion (5)
Tommy Hunter: Thunder drums (1), drums (6, 7, 8), reverb
Manny Smith: trumpet (4)
Clifford Thornton: trumpet (5)
Ronnie Boykins: bass (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
John Ore: bass (6, 7, prob. 8)
Ali Hassan: trombone (2)
C. Scoby Stroman: percussion (2, 3)
Clifford Jarvis: drums (5)

Recorded at the Choreographer's Workshop, New York, 1961

Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, a key transitional album in the Sun Ra catalog, was produced in two sessions shortly after the bandleader's 1961 migration from Chicago to New York (with a brief stopover in Montreal). One of about a dozen Arkestra albums compiled from recordings made at the Choreographer's Workshop, Art Forms displays Sun Ra's increasing tendency to juxtapose stylistic incongruities on vinyl in the interests of showcasing his versatility—or accommodating restless attention spans (perhaps his own).

After arriving in Gotham, Sunny set about broadening his resume by reinventing older jazz and blues forms while edging towards tomorrow's dimensions. "Cluster of Galaxies" and "Solar Drums" are modernistic percussion soundscapes, bracketing "Ankh #1," a swaggering R&B rework of a late '50s tune from the artist's Chicago years. "The Outer Heavens," sans rhythm section, echoes Third Stream chamber jazz, while "Infinity of the Universe" offsets a percussion battalion with thunderous low-register piano. "Lights on a Satellite" and "Kosmos in Blue," both recorded at an earlier Choreographer's session, ground the set on terra firma with some stylish hard bop. "Lights" remained a staple in Sunny's concert repertoire for the rest of his life.

Like many albums recorded during this period, Art Forms was not released on Saturn until several years later (1965), by which time Sun Ra's repertoire and concerts had progressed beyond conventional jazz forms. ("Lights on a Satellite" and "Kosmos in Blue" were recorded at the late 1961 session from which emerged the Bad & Beautiful album—which was not released until 1972.) Like all Choreographer's sessions, the ad hoc acoustics painted the proceedings with a raw, warehouse ambience—what we call "Garage Jazz."

Art Forms is one of the first Saturn releases to feature what became a trademark effect on many Sun Ra recordings during the 1960s: an otherworldly reverb courtesy drummer Tommy Hunter's open-reel tape deck. Hunter discovered the process while testing the unit during a band warm-up. He ran a cable from the output back through the input, creating a mind-bending feedback loop that could be shaped by adjusting the volume of the playback knob. You can hear Hunter's alchemy on "Cluster of Galaxies" and "Solar Drums." Tommy was initially apprehensive that Sun Ra might be furious at the cacophony, but when he heard it, the bandleader was delighted. The reverb became a recurring instrument in the band's lineup (and later an overused gimmick in psychedelic rock). It is, by serendipity, Sun Ra's initial foray into experimental electronic music.

This remastered digital edition includes the complete session recording of "Cluster of Galaxies," as well as a previously unreleased bonus track from the 1961 session, an after-hours quartet cooker titled "Chicago, Southside."

This one gets overlooked. Granted, it's one of the more schizo Ra offerings, in that 4 of the tracks sound like they're from the Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy frame of compositional abstraction, while the remaining 3 ("Ankh," "Lights on a Satellite," and "Kosmos in Blue,") are from the Bad and Beautiful sessions, and share that album's half-assed, almost conventional jazz sheen.

But the whack tunes "Cluster of Galaxies," and "The Outer Heavens," in particular have that early '60s Sun Ra character about them, full of that smokey, contemplative aura that makes Mr. Blount seem more accurately placed on a classical than a jazz shelf. And even those 3 conventional-ish bits are lovely in parts, with the usual Gilmore/Patrick and Arkestra far too skilled and dignified to let it ever slide into maudlin lyricism.

Sun Ra - 1972 - Bad And Beautiful

Sun Ra
Bad And Beautiful

01. Bad And The Beautiful
02. Ankh
03. Just In Time
04. Search Light Blues
05. Exotic Two
06. On The Blue Side
07. And This Is My Beloved

Sun Ra: piano
John Gilmore: tenor sax
Marshall Allen: alto sax, flute
Pat Patrick: baritone sax, percussion
Ronnie Boykins: bass
Tommy Hunter: drums

Recorded at the Choreographer's Workshop, New York, November 1961

The Bad and Beautiful was the first album recorded in New York by Sun Ra after he arrived from Chicago with a small contingent of the Arkestra in 1961. Its release was delayed for 11 years, finally appearing on Sunny's Saturn label in 1972. The album consists of four Sun Ra originals and three standards recorded by a sextet consisting of the leader on piano, accompanied by mainstays John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, Marshall Allen, Ronnie Boykins, and Tommy Hunter.

The album finds the band at a transitional stage between the "hard space bop" of their Chicago days and the avant-garde direction Sunny's music would take in the 1960s. A superficial listen would seem to indicate the repertoire and style were retrospective, yet it's evident from countless flourishes in the arranging and performing that a group of brash newcomers had arrived on the Gotham scene. Despite a string of late 1960s Saturn LP pressings of recordings made in Chicago from 1956 to 1961, upon their arrival on the east coast Sunny and his ensemble began progressing beyond what passed for "polite" jazz. New York changed Sunny irrevocably by inspiring and challenging him. He didn't just find himself in a new city; he began exploring the deeper cosmos.

In many ways, Bad and Beautiful is a resume. It lays out what Sunny had learned as a pianist, composer, bandleader, and arranger during his Chicago years (and earlier growing up in Birmingham). It also presents the Arkestra as a tight-knit, yet relaxed ensemble, a team of professionals who play to each others' strengths with mutual respect. The album seems to say: This is who we are, this is what we did, we hope you like it, but don't expect us to continue in this fashion.

Then there's the issue of sonic quality. Bad and Beautiful sounds like it was recorded in a basement. In fact, it was: at the Choreographer's Workshop, 414 West 51st Street, which was the Arkestra's rehearsal space for several years after they arrived in NYC. The album's title thus acquires secondary implications: under bad conditions, beautiful music can be made. There's a genre called "garage rock." This is "garage jazz."

Two years after its delayed 1972 release, Bad and Beautiful was reissued with a lavish gatefold cover as part of a planned series of Saturn reissues and new recordings Sun Ra would make for the prestigious Impulse! jazz label. (That deal fell apart in two years, and a number of scheduled reissues and new projects were abandoned.) The Impulse! LP included the following technical note: "Many of the early Saturn recordings were recorded under less than optimum circumstances, and listeners are advised that certain portions of this album do not reach the standards of state-of-the-art recordings of the mid-1970s." That said, Impulse! proceeded to "fix" this admittedly "less than optimum" recording by mixing the monophonic tapes into fake "stereo" (attempting to replicate what had been lamentably done on the Saturn LP). Highs were boosted on one channel, lows on the other, producing a disorienting balance in which the left channel was noticeably inferior to the right. In addition, the tape was marred by sporadic flutter and dropouts, the tape speed ran slow, and the prevailing analog format made it difficult to remove transient noise while retaining the glorious lo-fi racket captured at the Choreographer's Workshop in 1961.

On this digital reissue we have retained the monophonic format. Working from the original tapes, we repaired a number of audio flaws and removed a scintilla of tape hiss, while retaining the raw energy captured by a historic band making great music in a less-than-ideal environment. These recordings aren't perfect. They will never be perfect. Trying to perfect them might inadvertently remove a layer of soul.

This remastered edition includes a previously unreleased session track, "Street of Dreams," featuring Pat Patrick showcased on baritone sax in a quartet setting. It appears here as track four, as found in sequence on the tape.

Bad and Beautiful is probably one of the first recording made after the Arkestra settled in New York in 1961. Not everyone in the Chicago band wanted to make the move, and since they hadn't been in New York long enough to recruit new musicians, Bad and Beautiful features an Arkestra that's been stripped down to a sextet of Ra, Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, Pat Patrick (who had already moved to NY), Ronnie Boykins, and Tommy "Bugs" Hunter. Aside from "Exotic Two," the tunes are split between standards (apparently the last ones the group would record until the '70s) and blues originals, but there are indications of the direction the Arkestra would take throughout the '60s. "Search Light Blues" has some interesting percussion accents finding their way into the arrangement, and "Exotic Two" alludes more clearly to the percussion-heavy sound that dominated many of the '60s recordings. Sun Ra plays piano exclusively on this recording, and Gilmore gets lots of room to shine. A significant transitional LP, this is probably the last "inside" record the Arkestra would record as they forged new sonic paths into the mid-'60s. [This album can also be found paired with We Travel the Space Ways on Evidence.]

Sun Ra - 1961 - The Futuristic Sounds Of Sun Ra

Sun Ra
The Futuristic Sounds Of Sun Ra

01. Bassism
02. Of Sounds And Something Else
03. What's That?
04. Where Is Tomorrow?
05. The Beginning
06. China Gates
07. New Day
08. Tapestry From An Asteroid
09. Jet Flight
10. Looking Outward
11. Space Jazz Reverie

Alto Saxophone, Woodwind [Morrow], Flute – Marshall Allen
Baritone Saxophone – Pat Patrick
Bass – Ronnie Boykins
Congas – Leah Ananda
Drums – Willie Jones
Euphonium, Trombone – Bernard McKinney
Piano – Sun Ra
Tenor Saxophone, Bass Clarinet – John Gilmore

Recorded at Medallion Studio, Newark, New Jersey. October 10, 1961.

Another fine one from the early days in New York. One of the things so interesting about this session is not the increasing use of percussive action around the central themes, the regal, wordless vocals, or the outer space titles. For me, the interest lies less in the futuristic ideas than the sometimes eerie themes that evoke not outer space so much as ancient civilizations - "Ancient Aethiopia" as he'd have it. I hear long gone worlds, buried civilizations, music that brings to mind the creation of the great pyramids, etc. Utterly listenable from beginning to end, with the multi-reed and percussion-heavy interplay of "The Beginning" and the entirety of the vocal piece "China Gates" standing out most prominently. Things are helped immensely by the fine production values of Savoy (a surprising label for the Arkestra), though one would hope that in this age of reissues, they could find some new liner notes that do more than just explain (ca. 1960) why Sun Ra deserves to be heard.

Sun Ra stated that he wanted to create otherworldly emotions on this album. These emotions are “disguised as jazz,” to quote one of Ra’s poems. The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra, recorded in 1961, consists of a range of simmering, swinging, riffing tunes full of deft counterpoint. On the surface, these tunes show a rather restrained side of Ra and his Arkestra, yet below that surface lurk some unsettling emotions. Some might mistake those unsettling feelings for detachment, or worse, emotional vacuum. Not the case. The Arkestra instead presents on this album a collection of emotions that cannot readily be pinned down with a name.

To understand this idea, look no further than the song titles: “China Gates,” “Space Jazz Reverie,” “Of Wounds and Something Else,” “What’s that?” or “Tapestry from an Asteroid”. All of these titles evoke something unknown, something unfamiliar, pointing the listener to some unexplored place.

Next, we can look at his musical forms, in and of themselves familiar. “Bassism” riffs seductively with fragmented blues tones, but the sound stretches away from you, like the Arkestra is playing through the void of space. “Space Jazz Reverie” ostensibly sounds like a large-ensemble take on hard bop: mid-tempo swing, strange-but-not unheard-of intervals and a string of solos. But Ra’s comping on the piano generates an unsettling backdrop that keeps the tune just slightly out of balance- dense chords want to become clusters of sound, harmony and melody begin to merge with rhythm. After the solos comes a bizarre bridge where Bernard McKinney’s trombone and Marshall Allen’s alto sax weave together two disparate themes, only to arrive again, resolved, in the head arrangement. You can also hear this approach on “Jet Flight,” “What’s That?” and “Where’s Tomorrow?”.

“Looking Outward” builds on a familiar Afro-Cuban rhythm, but it is only skeletal: merely the idea of Afro-Cuban. The Arkestra adorns it with a trance-like flute figure and a distant, yearning bass clarinet drone. “The Beginning” and “New Day” mutate the Afro-Cuban motif in a similar fashion, retaining Ronnie Boykins’ sharp, cyclic bass lines, and now adding high-pitched bells, crying horns and an even richer bed of percussion. The familiar becomes unfamiliar, and hence, something new and exciting.

What exactly are these new, otherworldly emotions? For me to try and pin it down for you would be go against the grain of what the music is trying to say. We all have to find out for ourselves. Personally, The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra sounds like the imagination at work, and from where I am sitting, that makes a beautiful sound.

Sun Ra's only release for the Savoy label is a gem. Recorded in October of 1961, this is probably the first recording the Arkestra made after arriving in New York. As such, you're dealing with a smallish Arkestra (seven main instrumentalists, joined by vocalist Ricky Murray on "China Gate") that's still playing the boppish, highly arranged music characteristic of the Chicago years (1954-1961). Ra sticks to acoustic piano for the entire session, but various percussion instruments are dispersed throughout the band, giving a slightly exotic flavor to some of the tunes. John Gilmore plays bass clarinet on a couple tunes (as well as some great tenor solos), and Marshall Allen's flute playing is excellent, as always. This album was produced by Tom Wilson, who also produced the first Sun Ra LP, Jazz by Sun Ra (1956) for the Transition label, later reissued by Delmark as Sun Song (Wilson later went on to sign the Mothers of Invention to Verve and "electrified" Bob Dylan). With the exception of "The Beginning," all the tunes are very accessible. This is one to play for the mistaken folks who think the Arkestra did nothing but make noise. Excellent.

Sun Ra - 1965 - Angels and Demons at Play

Sun Ra
Angels and Demons at Play

01. Tiny Pyramids 3:36
02. Between Two Worlds 1:56
03. Music From The World Tomorrow 2:20
04. Angels And Demons At Play 2:56
05. Urnack 3:45
06. Medicine For A Nightmare 2:15
07. A Call For All Demons 4:12
08. Demon's Lullaby 2:07

1 - 4 recorded at either Hall Recording Company or RCA Studios, Chicago, June 1960
5 - 8 recorded at RCA studios, Chicago, probably February 1956

Sun Ra: piano, Cosmic Tone Organ, percussion
Phil Cohran: trumpet (1, 4), Violin-Uke (3)
Nate Pryor (1, 4) and Bo Bailey (2): trombone
John Gilmore: tenor sax (1, 2, 4), clarinet (1, 4)
Marshall Allen: alto sax (2), flute (1, 4)
Ronnie Boykins: bass
Jon Hardy: drums (1, 3, 4)
Robert Barry: drums (2)

Sun Ra: piano, electric piano
Art Hoyle: trumpet
John Gilmore: tenor sax
Pat Patrick: baritone sax
Julian Priester: trombone
Wilburn Green: bass
Jim Herndon: tympani
Robert Barry: drums

Angels And Demons At Play was compiled from two different sessions, recorded four years apart (1956 and 1960), that reflect Sun Ra's evolution from hard Chicago bop towards exotic styles that transcended easy categorization. The album was released in 1965 with a distinctive sleeve design by Sun Ra, featuring an identical illustration on both sides, and no sleeve notes. Besides the leader, there's overlapping personnel at the two sessions, yet the two LP sides were somewhat incongruous, demonstrating how much the Arkestra had evolved in four years.

Side A (tracks 1–4) consists of four performances from the marathon 1960 Chicago recording session that produced dozens of tracks released over the subsequent decade on a series of Saturn releases. Two idiosyncratic works, "Tiny Pyramids" and the title track (the latter featuring a flute solo by Marshall Allen), were composed by bassist Ronnie Boykins. "Between Two Worlds," a Sun Ra original, is a short, springy cha-cha. The colorfully abstract "Music From The World Tomorrow," featuring Sun Ra on Cosmic Tone Organ and Phil Cohran on "violin-uke," is the album's revelation — a short "sound experiment" rather than a composition, hinting more than any work on the collection Sunny's future direction.

The B-side of the album (tracks 5–8) goes back to the 1956 first Arkestra sessions, featuring Sunny's emerging "Hard Space Bop." The work is solid, and representative of the foundational years of the Sun Ra legacy. Three of the tracks had been released as singles by Saturn.

The respective sides document two early periods of Sun Ra's musical trajectory. But by the time the album was released in 1965, neither side accurately reflected what Sun Ra was offering fans on the concert stage or on new album releases, much less where his music would head as the decade continued to unfold. Compare Angels and Demons to the albums Strange Strings (recorded 1965) and Atlantis (recorded 1967-68), which sonically and stylistically are, as Sun Ra might say, "from another planet."

This album contains the moment when something 'happens' to the sound palette of the band. Following chronologically we might have come across frenetic but eccentric jazz from the same world as Monk and Mingus, as well as doo-wop, rhythm and blues and what almost might be called world music. But here we are confronted with ‘Music from the World Tomorrow’ – which is the most radical music labelled ‘jazz’ that I’ve come across from this time period (1960). Whilst there is a 4/4 pulse throughout, what goes on over the top can only be described as ‘free’ – although I’m pretty sure Ra himself didn’t like that label.

The first side comes across as fairly meditative and clearly forward thinking, although ‘Tiny Pyramids’ is in the same vein as pieces such as ‘Overtones of China’ from ‘Visits Planet Earth’ (1958). The title track features an addictive repeated bass line in 5/8, which was pretty unusual in itself for 1960 (apart from Dave Brubeck’s work from the year previous).

The second side is a particularly energetic outing from the classic early (May 1956) Arkestra lineup. This may be what’s known more traditionally as ‘jazz’ but the quirkiness of the arrangements and Ra’s piano playing surely shows that this is anything but ‘typical swing or bebop’.

Whichever side you listen to, Ra’s vision of music as a ‘sound of joy’ shines through. There’s just no room for pretentiousness here.

This album is split right down the middle for me. I adore every moment from the Angels' side, but can't bear a single moment from the Demons' side. Angels is amazingly original for a recording from this era, full of Egyptian and Arabic vibes, with a wonderful low-fi production. Demons on the other hand is exactly what you'd expect from this type of swinging jazz period, and does nothing for me whatsoever. Originally recorded as two separate sessions. I wonder how on earth, whoever conceived this album, thought the two recordings went together.