Saturday, March 1, 2014

Sun Ra: It Is Forbidden/The Other Side of the Sun


[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 & His Intergalactic Arkestra
It Is Forbidden
Total Energy

Sun Ra and His Arkestra 
The Other Side of the Sun
Comet Records

These recordings from jazz great Sun Ra highlight two very different aspects of his prodigious output.  Recorded live at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in Exile (held in Canada after the promoters lost their license in Michigan) in 1974 , It Is Forbidden showcases Ra's vitality and versatility as a showman, a big band leader and entertainer deeply concerned with the use of spectacle and splendor to get his messages across to unsuspecting audiences.  The Other Side of the Sun features Ra as elder statesman and master of the recording studio.

It Is Forbidden has never been released before, and it's a significant addition to his recorded legacy.  It's the third in a series of Ra Ann Arbor festival recordings, produced by John Sinclair, and it's the strongest of the three.  The first two were heavy on space chants and preaching, and while that's always a prominent part of most Ra shows, there's less of it on this disc, where the focus is more on instrumental improvisation, with Ra contributing heavily on mini-moog.  Several of the standard Ra pieces, like "Love in Outer Space" and "Discipline 27," show up in the extended set, but they serve as signposts along the way between lengthy improvs rather than standalone set pieces.  With this band Ra also extended his sound palette with the addition of Dale Williams on electric guitar, who at one point contributes a wild post-Hendrix solo break that's highly reminiscent of the guitar work Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas were contributing to Miles Davis' band at around the same time period.  "It is Forbidden" is a catchy chant making its first appearance on CD.  This is a great disc that's one of Sun Ra's better live recordings from the '70s.

The Other Side of the Sun is the first release on CD of an obscure album previously available on the Sweet Earth label.  Recorded in 1978-79, it turns out to be one of the strongest studio recordings of Ra's last decade and a half, on the same level as 1990's Mayan Temples.  Throughout the '80s, Ra's music was much less experimental and more rooted in older jazz styles than it was in the late '60s and early '70s, and this record in many ways serves as an earlier pointer to that direction. The CD opens with "Space Fling," a delightful big band romp that swings ferociously.  There are two cover tunes: a slightly twisted, sublime version of "Flamingo" that manages to emulate the mood of the Ellington/Strayhorn arrangement while undermining it at the same time, and a marvelous version of "The Sunny Side of the Street," with one of the best John Gilmore tenor sax solos of the later period of his playing.  Almost every studio recording  of Ra's signature tune "Space is the Place" is unique; this version is an extended space/funk workout in the style of Lanquidity.  The disc ends with a beautiful controlled improvisation piece, "Manhattan Cocktail," with several sequences of contrasting textures and instrumental combinations, unified by Sun Ra's electronic keyboard work--an excellent close to an excellent album.

2001-06-29 (Originally published in Nine Times, 2001)

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