Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sun Ra: Some Live Recording Reviews

[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 and His Intergalactic Research Arkestra
It's After the End of the World

Sun Ra and His Arkestra
Live at Montreux

These are two primo concert recordings of Sun Ra and his Arkestra from the 1970s. Both of these albums were originally released in that decade, and this is the first domestic release of either of them on CD (with one caveat).  It's After the End of the World, originally appearing on MPS in 1971, consists of heavily edited excerpts from two concerts of an early European tour, in Germany in the fall of 1970. The Arkestra was huge for the tour, including the stellar sax lineup of John Gilmore on tenor, Marshall Allen and Danny Davis on alto (featured on some blistering duets), Pat Patrick and Danny Thompson on baritone, and Absholom Ben Shlomo on alto. Add two of the greatest trumpeters ever to play with Ra, Kwame Hadi and Akh Tal Ebah, plus bass clarinet, oboe, French horn, and English horn, not to mention all the other instruments doubled on by most of these players, and you've got one hell of a horn section. Ra's arrangements put it to good use, and the results are astonishing, from all-out full-throttle blasting to solo spots, from dark brooding melodies to atonal screeching. Ra was heavily into the mini-moog at this time, and he adds outer space textures throughout. Although this is the first release of the original LP on CD, it should be noted that more complete versions of both of these concerts appeared on CD in 1998, on Black Myth/Out in Space (Motor Music). All of the music from It's After, plus over an hour of additional music, appears there; it may be out of print but is well worth tracking down if this single disc isn't enough for you. It's After is an album of exhilarating big band jazz, one of Ra's best, surpassed perhaps only by 1976's Live in Montreux.

Recorded just six years later at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Live at Montreux finds the Arkestra again in fine form. Most of this 2-CD set, originally a 2-LP set first on Saturn and then on Inner City, is not as consistently in your face as It's After, but it has its out moments. Ra assembled another enormous big band for the concert, including the return of two players who hadn't appeared with him since the '60s, Chris Capers on trumpet and Clifford Jarvis on drums. Pat Patrick again appears on baritone sax, along with the regular sax section. There's brilliant playing throughout, by John Gilmore as always (who particularly shines on an outstanding high-tempo "Take the A Train") and by Ahmed Abdullah on trumpet. But the true star of Montreux is Ra himself, whose organ, moog, and piano playing is exemplary here. From the solo piano intro to "Take the A Train" to his synthesizer interjections in the extended mix of improvisation and arranged riffs that make up most of the first disc, Ra is on fire. This is the real deal. The concert culminates in a majestic rendering of "El Is a Sound of Joy," one of Ra's best compositions from the '50s. With the grandeur of its opening theme and its foot-stomping baritone sax-anchored middle section with brilliant trumpet work from Abdullah, this is a killer version of a Ra classic. Excellent sound, nice gatefold case, and the inclusion of the original liner notes by Bob Blumenthal, combined with the music itself, make this a superb reissue of what may be Sun Ra's single best live recording released during his lifetime. Then again, with It's After the End of the World, Nothing Is, and Nuits de la Fondation Maeght, that last statement may not be true. Get them all and judge for yourself.

2003 (Originally published in Nine Times, July 2003)

The Sun Ra Arkestra
Live at Praxis '84
Leo Records

This 2-CD set, recorded live in Greece in 1984, is a reissue of what was originally 3 LPs released on the obscure Praxis label. It's a recording of an entire Ra concert, which means the music covers a wide spectrum of jazz styles, from Fletcher Henderson big band arrangements and piano blues to wild freewheeling improvisation, and everything in between and beyond: original Ra compositions ("Fate in a  Pleasant Mood," "They'' Come Back"), more modern jazz and pop covers ("Satin Doll," "Mack the Knife," with Satchmo-style vocals from James Jacson), a healthy dose of space chants, and a burning (pun intended) version of "Nuclear War." There's a great vocal version of "Enlightenment" that flows into "Strange Mathematics/Rhythmic Equations," where Ra discourses on music history: "They tried to fool you / Now I got to school you / All about jazz."

By this time, Ra's wilder days were behind him, and his concerts had settled into a comfortable, programmatic groove. But the Arkestra continued to be a formidable big band, driven largely by Ra's keyboard mastery (best featured here on the solo piano "Over the Rainbow"), Marshall Allen's driving alto sax (Allen continues to lead the Arkestra to this day), and John Gilmore's commanding presence on tenor sax. Gilmore was a masterful player whose authority, phrasing, and sense of beauty and wonder were second to no one. His presence is sorely missed on the jazz since since his passing in 1995, so every release featuring him is a cause for celebration. He solos extensively here on several tracks, especially "Egyptian Fantasy [Carefree]," "Satin Doll," and "Discipline 27."

The mood throughout this concert is joyful and buoyant. The sound is occasionally boomy, and the bass is sometimes underrecorded, but for the most part it conveys a good sense of the spectacle and theatricality of a typical '80s Ra concert. Dancers are listed in the personnel, and even though you can't hear them, you can sense their presence in the sheer physicality and energy of the performance.

2000 (Originally published in Nine Times, August 2000)

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