By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Later in the ’70s, Detroit-based George Clinton developed his proto-hip-hop funk mythology and publicly cited Sun Ra, James Brown, Hendrix, Sly Stone and the birdname doowop vocal groups as being among the musical precursors to his classic Parliament-Funkadelic sound, which Compton producer-rapper Dr. Dre would recycle for the new hip-hop generation of the ’90s. Clinton openly re-adapted Sun Ra’s “Black Noah” escape myth, which translated to P-Funk mythology as the Mothership Connection spacecraft.
Sun Ra was a far-out musical sorcerer-alchemist and a performing professor in Egyptology, classical African-American musicology and Afro-Hermetic studies (he boned up extensively on post-Rosicrucian theosophist-mystics Blavatsky, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky), although he was dismissed by certain academics as a musical and Ã¢ philosophical naif. Another major early impression on Sun Ra was made at a sort of mutant Masonic lodge sponsored by white folks in Ra’s native Birmingham, Alabama. This organization actually dedicated itself to preserving forests and nature, and helping black people — this in the so-called Magic City, with the largest Klan population in U.S. history. At the age of 10 (circa 1924), Sun Ra joined the lodge’s junior division, where he was coached in woodcraft, camping, military precision marching and oratory. “They taught me discipline and how to be a leader,” he once said.
Saturn Records was formed 100 percent DIY in ’56 Chicago by Sun Ra and business partner Alton Abraham with the goal of subsidizing Ra during gigless downtime. This dime-store label with no distribution began cranking out no-budget singles for sale at gigs or through mail order, some of them 100-only pressings. Later, in the ’60s and ’70s, Saturn began releasing albums, many of which came with hand-painted labels and covers, often with no two identical sleeves.
From the ’60s on, Sun Ra recorded as much as possible, including rehearsals, which could go on all night. To the musicians, rehearsals were all part of the same cookout that mixed recording sessions and live gigs. Feedback, distortion, reverb, bizarre mike placement and abrupt edits were the hallmarks of such terminally lo-fi Saturn productions, which flew in the face of major labels’ boasts of technology breakthroughs for making noise- and distortion-free recordings where the listener could fully experience “being there!”
Being there, of course, was what tripping with the Arkestra was all about, especially onstage. On some of the many rehearsal tapes pressed on vinyl, the listener can hear phones ringing, people coughing, scuffling about the room, doors opening and closing, all becoming part of the music’s ambience, replete with pops, clicks and hiss on the tapes, some deliberate, some accidental, all of it adding to the overall vibe of an Arkestra performance, by musicians trained to play the room up and to incorporate acoustic idiosyncrasies into the action.
You won’t be seeing any Saturn records outside of eBay any time soon, so give it up: CD is now the way of the Saturn catalog, and we collector geekz who amassed dozens of unidentified white labels over the years may now finally get a shot at finding out what the hell some of these titles might be. Evidence (EvidenceMusic@aol.com), apparently working with the estates of Sun Ra and Alton Abraham, is now the premier Sun Ra reissue archivist/label, having put out CD versions of more than 20 Saturn titles over the past four years. Most of the five on the way this month were originally planned for release by the Impulse label. Detailed booklet notes characterize the Saturn licensing deal with Impulse as an ill-fated conjunction with a major corporation, when in reality putting out five albums a year for two years ain’t too shabby.
Listening to the CDs can never come close to the spectacular experience of being there in the room during an Arkestra performance, and it seems absurd to this writer to go into much detailed critiquing. A Sun Ra record is a Sun Ra record — you need to listen to as many as you can to get the Big Picture. And so with digital lab-rat inventions like Sonic Solution NoNoise software as their ultimate card, Evidence has sacrificed some of the noisy fun stuff for greater clarity in a wider range of harmonics. Here are the recent issues:
Cymbals/Crystal Spears: The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums This double CD includes the never-before-released Cymbals and Crystal Spears, and is puzzlingly packaged as The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums, which begs the question: What Sun Ra album was not “lost” to elitist completist vinyl collectors until Blast First and Evidence began their “populist” CD re-ish program? Disc 1: Cymbals was recorded in ’73 in a formal recording studio in New York with a pro engineer, so three tracks eventually appeared on Deep Purple (Saturn), while the other two previously unreleased tracks place emphasis on soloists like John Gilmore and bass clarinetist Eloe Omoe, plus a bit of straight jazz (by Sun Ra standards). Disc 2: Crystal Spears, also ’73, same studio, is more atonal, with some choppy noise and bursts of organ, Selmer Clavioline and Minimoog.
Pathways to Unknown Worlds/Friendly LoveRecorded in New York City circa ’73, these two were once scheduled for release as two-thirds of a planned trilogy in ill-fated quadraphonic sound. Three out of four tracks were on the 1975 Impulse LP Pathways to Unknown Worlds, with the fourth, previously unreleased, added here. This one is even more free improv than Spears or Cymbals (also originally recorded in quad). On Friendly Love, another planned Impulse release, trap drums are mostly replaced by congas; otherwise, similar personnel to Pathways. Awesome bass-playing by the late Ronnie Boykins, to some the unsung hero of the Arkestra. Bass-clarinet freaks take note: On “Friendly Love I,” Omoe, a Sun Ra re-educated street gangster, is playing a rare contra-alto clarinet, the B-flat bass clarinet’s longer, lower E-flat cousin.