Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sun Ra: The Journey Continues

[A little over 10 years ago, I used to write record reviews for Nine Times, a publication of Plan 9 Music. From time to time I will put up some of these reviews for posterity.]

Sun Ra  "The Journey Continues"

Atavistic Unheard Music


Leo/Golden Years

Sun Ra may well be the most misunderstood figure in jazz.  He certainly encouraged this, not only by his persona and outlandish stage appearance, with flowing robes and science fair headgear, but also of course by his insistence that he was born on Saturn.  Who's to say?  Or, to use Ra's own words, "If you came from somewhere here, why can't you go somewhere there?"  Part trickster, part shaman, part cult leader, Ra was perfectly serious, and yet coy at the same time, when he proclaimed, "Some call me Mr. Ra--Others call me Mr. Re--You can call me Mr. Mystery."  He is also misunderstood because he's hard to pigeonhole, both in the world of jazz, with its rigidly enforced definitions of style, and in the broader world of popular music.  You can find enough evidence in his recorded output to call his music swing, blues, bebop, modal, hard bop, classical, neo-conservative, avant-garde, experimental, funk, and even disco.

The thing is, his music is all these things.  And the cloak of mystery Ra drew around himself also served to obscure his very real and un-mysterious contributions to music.  Ten years after his death, Mr. Ra remains a mystery, but that's certainly part of the fun, especially as new recordings continue to come to light, adding to his already impressive legacy.  The three new releases dealt with here do little to dispel the enigma.  Even accounting for the kinds of changes a person could go though over the 30-year span covered by these recordings, it's hard to come to terms with the man behind such disparate releases.  How could the same person be a vocal pop-jazz and doo-wop arranger, a super-Afro Black Messiah blaxploitation movie star, and a sensitive, innovative piano stylist?

Hot on the heels of last year's Music from Tomorrow's World, John Corbett with his Unheard Music Series has unearthed another stellar batch of hitherto unknown Ra recordings.  Spaceship Lullaby documents Ra's vocal arrangement and piano accompanist work from 1955-1960 in Chicago with three different vocal groups, two of them vocal quartets:  the Nu Sounds, the Lintels, and the Cosmic Rays.  What a find!  One of the most revelatory aspects of The Singles (Evidence), a compilation of 45 RPMs released on Ra's Saturn label, was its documentation of his work with doo-wop groups in the 1950s.  Here for the first time is a home recording of Ra rehearsing a street doo-wop group, the Lintels.  These are the roughest songs on this CD, since the group is decidedly amateur and the least polished of the vocal groups.  The Nu Sounds, on the other hand, are more professional, if at times a bit schmaltzy (as on "Haunted Heart").  They are more in the pop-jazz vein than doo-wop per se.

The first 17 cuts on the CD are the Nu Sounds in 1955, backed only by Ra on piano and Robert Barry on drums, cruising through peppy standards like "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Holiday for Strings."  The most exciting songs by them are three Ra originals, two of them long known to Ra scholars but never known to be recorded.  "Black Sky & Blue Moon" is an a capella rendering of a doo-wop song that reappears later on the disc in a version by the Cosmic Rays.  "Spaceship Lullaby" is a boppish tune that includes vocal bits that would later reappear in "Rocket No. 9" and "Interplanetary Music."  "Chicago USA" was written for a theme song contest for the city.  With its time changes and modulating chords, it's one of the most advanced of the pieces here.  The selections featuring the Cosmic Rays, from the late 1950s, are unique to this CD in that they include backing by the entire Arkestra.  "Africa" is particularly notable for its integration of dissonant vocals and the mystical African jungle groove of the band.  "Black Sky & Blue Moon" gets the full band treatment, and it's a gorgeous rendering.

Besides their obvious historical interest as additions to Ra's oeuvre, these recordings are important because they demonstrate Ra's early work as arranger.  Arranging was a skill he'd been working on since the 1940s with Fletcher Henderson, Wynonie Harris, Red Saunders, and many others, and it was a skill out of which he would get much creative mileage as a bandleader with the Arkestra.  Spaceship Lullaby is a fascinating document of Ra's unique approach to jazz and doo-wop vocals.

Skip the '60s and jump to the '70s for the next two releases....and God bless the '70s!  No other decade could have supplied the kind of environment needed for the creation of the blaxploitation/science fiction/philosophical treatise feature film Space Is the Place.  Combining elements of (purposely) cheesy sci-fi movies, Ra's own esoteric Afrocentric philosophy, and "Sweet Sweetback," this is one strange, funny movie.  Filmed in Oakland, California, the movie disappeared from sight after its completion in 1974, only to resurface on video in the '90s.  Now Plexifilm has given it the deluxe treatment on DVD, with the director's cut in widescreen format with 20 restored minutes, and it's a hoot.  Not that there isn't a lot to take seriously--as director John Coney and producer Jim Newman reveal in a short interview included as an extra, although the basic plot and script were by someone else, Ra insisted on writing all of his own dialogue.  There's sporadic footage of the Arkestra performing, but for the most part the film sticks to the plot:  Sun Ra comes back to Earth from outer space (in a music-propelled spaceship that looks like a yellow doggie bone with eyes) to rescue African Americans from the planet (think about this in the context of the Black Panthers and Vietnam, with the draft capturing a disproportionate amount of African American youth).  Ra is chased and harassed by two bad guys from NASA who want to know the secret of his spaceship, and he's also engaged in a cosmic battle for black souls with a shady pimp known as the Overseer.

Some of the best scenes include Ra on another planet, in pseudo-Egyptian costume, and Ra being kidnapped by the bad guys (they tie him up and force him to listen to "Dixie" on headphones!).  Even though the Arkestra is only sporadically seen performing, Ra's music is in the soundtrack constantly, including much music not included on the soundtrack CD released on Evidence--which includes a lot of music not heard in the film.  Some of the best music actually heard in the film consists of wild synthesizer outings, which fit perfectly with the film's cosmic overtones.  Ra is in the movie a lot, and he really floats through it like a being from another planet.

For the most part, the movie is plot-driven.  Like many a rock movie, the climax of Space Is the Place is a concert--will Sun Ra escape from the clutches of NASA in time for the show?--but when it finally happens, not much music is performed there before mayhem breaks out.  On the one hand, it is frustrating not to have more concert footage of the band (there isn't that much from the '70s), but on the other hand, this is a strangely funny, engaging cult movie that holds up well outside of the context of the time in which it was made.  Also included on the DVD are about 15 minutes of silent home movies of the Arkestra in Egypt, dancing and playing in front of the pyramids.

The third release, Piano Recital (Teatro La Fenice, Venezia), is a solo piano concert performed by Sun Ra in Venice in late 1977.  This is Ra at his purest, at the peak of his powers.  If it wasn't clear from much of his output of the '70s, where he focused more on synthesizers and other electronic keyboards, this recording demonstrates once and for all that he was a formidable master of jazz piano.  After a free improvisatory opening, where he ranges from contemplative introspection to high classical posturing, he barrels though a program of hard blues, stride, space originals, boogie-woogie, and jazz standards, all played with authority, technique, and, most of all, swing.  It's nice to hear "Outer Spaceways, Inc." (usually done as a space chant with the Arkestra) played as an instrumental, with its melody broken apart and transmuted.  He accompanies his piano with vocals on "Angel Race."  Among the standards are such Ra perennials as "St. Louis Blues" and "Take the A Train," but the highlight has to be "Penthouse Serenade," a tour-de-force that clearly shows Ra's mastery of several jazz piano idioms, seamlessly woven together into a beautiful performance.

So, which of these is the real Sun Ra?  Well, there doesn't have to be just one, certainly, but after listening to an hour of his solo piano playing, it's easy to see how he could use the power of his music as a basis for a philosophy that promises a better, abstract world in space (inner space, perhaps).  Ra's music and beliefs continue to challenge and intrigue us with its possibilities.

2003-11-10 (Originally published in Nine Times, Dec/Jan. 2003/04)

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