|Photo by Edward Clover|
Sun Ra was a big-band leader and autodidactic mystic who throughout his fascinating 60-plus-year career as a musician-teacher had an amazing habit of magically showing up at those precious points in history when something new was happening, usually some pre-existing musical genre that was about to be transmuted by external-power forces from one form into something else. Then he’d seemingly disappear back into space — always the place to be, according to his many colorful manifestos.
For example, members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra were tripping on yet another of their leader’s co(s)mically convoluted confluences of energy circa ’69 when punk forefathers Iggy and the Stooges played a series of crazed shows with them and the MC5! It was so very Sun Ra to be eye-center of such a heavy sociopolitico-musical moment when race, class, age, mythology, free jazz, electronica, loud free-form rock, drugs, sex and alcohol all blurred together into the one sick mess that eventually came to be called “proto-punk.”
The 5’s manager, John Sinclair, who’d been conspicuously weaving many of Ra’s philosophical concepts into the twisted White Panther rhetoric he foisted on his baffled charges, insisted that Sun Ra’s Astro Infinity Arkestra (or whatever moniker they were traveling under that month) be added to the bill. Sinclair had the 5 publicly talk about wailing away with atonal white noise shrieking from their guitar amps — basically what they perceived Sun Ra to be doing with brass, woodwinds, percussion and electronic keyboards during his more radical expressionistic space jams.
Now the Arkestra found themselves interacting with black revolutionaries at one end and the MC5 — a bunch of wasted, angry, white blue-collar hippies — at the other. Here was this thrashy, doped-out, barely competent band of long-haired garage-rock gnarlers, most of whom had only one honest agenda: sex, drugs and living out some mythical doof-headed “rock & roll” fantasy without the musical chops or the material to pull it off. Even worse, their middle-class, overeducated, media-savvy manager kept writing embarrassing revolutionary treatises that band members didn’t have the education to comprehend or were too high to read even if they could! (Critics, naturally, loved Sinclair’s literary rhetoric, while the masses passed.)
Sun Ra was apparently so unimpressed by the derelict lifestyle of his new concert mates (he was adamantly anti-drugs) that he never pursued further entrée to the open-air-rock-concert circuit of the post-Woodstock generation, opting for the world of international jazz festivals, clubs and a few colleges. And so Ra vanished from the rock radar until April ’81, when he appeared at Myron’s Ballroom in Los Angeles, his first L.A. date since Dorsey High in ’69. The Arkestra utterly galvanized L.A.’s hodgepodge community of avant-jazzbos, free-music freaks and musically adventurous “post-punks” too old to go the way their music was taking them now that it had been overthrown by suburban hardcore skate-punk kids.
Thus the mighty Ra spake to the hippies, the proto-punks and the post-punks. With the MC5/Stooges/Arkestra show, the high priest of the musical omniverse had once again officiated during a passing-of-the-torch ritual. That particular time was at the birth of American punk rock in Michigan (depending on who you’re talking to) in 1969, where the hippies were no longer necessarily all peace-loving, stoned whitebread kids subsidized by their parents.
1969 was also a time when alienated inner-city blacks were still being browbeaten by Muslim despot Elijah Muhammad’s reverse-racist, sexist perversion of the Koran. Although the ascent of the Nation of Islam had paralleled the so-called New Thing uprising of post-bop black avant-garde jazz musicians, writers and artists, it was not necessarily sanctioned by pre-eminent exponents of mid-’60s “spiritual jazz” and its descendent “free jazz” movement. Free jazz was at that time drawing smallish crowds of young, predominantly white music-department kids and other jazz fans, with fewer black nationalists in the loop. Politically, Sun Ra did influence black-separatist street thought by openly bugging with Muslims in the park, yet like the post-Mecca Malcolm X, he rejected Elijah Muhammad’s hate-mongering “white devil” theory, bearing in mind, no doubt, that young white kids were among his biggest supporters.
For more than 40 years till his death, Sun Ra’s orchestra represented a quasi-Masonic-meets-Afro-Baptist hard-work ethic as a symbol for black excellence, with “precision and discipline” the keywords he drilled into his disciples. Ra’s ideal follower was an ascetic, workmanlike musician who’d toil away in his female-exclusionist Sun Palace (only exceptions: June Tyson and a dancer or two), which housed the globetrotting mutant lodge-cum-space-jazz-orchestra with its own secret codes, initiations, etiquettes, rituals, costumes and other cosmic pranksterisms.
During the early ’70s, Sun Ra’s concerts drew eager collegiate crowds who were enthralled by the Arkestra’s stage show, which incorporated strokes from ’50s exotica-kitsch folks like Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Esquivel, Yma Sumac and Korla Pandit. Ra weaved in imaginary ancient Egyptian music with straight Ellingtonian–Fletcher Henderson stompin’ swing, space chants and abstract electronics, all thrown into the same blender that combined Cubist-informed Tatum and Powell piano solos, with a dash of Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and the creepier end of Bartók hovering in the mix. Visually, Ra was influenced by New York–based Nigerian drummer Olatunji’s passion for hand drums, feathers, robes and ecstatic dancing. Olatunji was the leader-teacher who first brought African hand-drumming music to mainstream USA with his “Drums of Passion” series of best-selling albums, and a refined scholar with whom Sun Ra exchanged intellectual ideas as well as musicians.
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 â 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 Love Recorded 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.
Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel “Enlightenment” (originally on Jazz in Silhouette) has a gorgeous melody, with Milesesque cool boppishness. Evidence vice president Jerry Gordon’s idea of a nice, accessible Sun Ra compilation includes a wide range of tracks from 15 different Saturn albums recorded between ’56 and ’73. There’s also a piece from the soundtrack to the must-see Sun Ra movie Space Is the Place and a couple of singles from the essential Evidence double CD The Singles.
When Angels Speak of Love Recorded at the Choreographer’s Workshop in New York City in 1963 during a period when the band recorded all of their rehearsals on reel-to-reel Ampex (engineered by drummer Tommy “Bugs” Hunter, holding sticks in one hand and tweaking knobs with the other; Hunter accidentally put the output in the input and created amazing delay and reverb effects, which Sun Ra loved). Tortured, dense, and a demanding time for the novice.
Lanquidity This is the real sleeper of the bunch. Recorded by Bob Blank and Joe Arlotta at Blank Tapes Studio, NYC, circa ’78. Gasp with astonishment while this pup slides into slo-mo dubby bass with buggy slapped-out drums, making Lanquidity the Great Lost Sun Ra Dub Album. One track gets bogged down with warmed-over funk and McLaughlinesque electric guitar threatening to kill the buzz, but be patient: A coupla spins more and it all starts to sink in. Then there’s the vocal ensemble–enhanced “There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You Of),” which closes this one as the party-track must-have, reminding you why you’re still a Sun Ra freak.
The Sun Ra Arkestra, now under the direction of Marshall Allen (the alto saxist who can play the highest microtones in the history of the instrument), performs at the Knitting Factory on Tuesday, September 12.