Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sun Ra on Art Yard

Herman Poole Blount, nee Le Sony’r Ra, otherwise known to most of us Earthly mortals simply as Sun Ra (1914-93), was as enigmatic in life as he was in his music. But it is his music, which sadly seemed so unapproachable by so many during his lifetime, has taken on a new life since his death some two decades ago. Thankfully, many labels – legitimate and otherwise – have taken up the mantel of keeping Sun Ra’s music alive in the meantime.

Perhaps the ill-fated Evidence label has done the best and most comprehensive job of restoring Ra’s most significant music to a whole new generation of listeners – particularly many of the great albums from the 50s and the 60s.

But many other labels have been out there commendably pushing new and undiscovered Sun Ra. Special kudos go to Atavistic for quite a number of gems including Some Blues But Not The Kind That’s Blue and the fabulous Nuclear War. Sadly, though, and, the John Corbett-helmed Evidence releases, which might never have found an end date, have ceased to be issued quite some years ago. Evidence might not even exist as a label anymore.

Recently, though, the British Art Yard label has done a fairly commendable job of issuing many little-known Sun Ra Saturn releases from the 70s, a most fertile period in the Arkestra’s music. At this point, each of the Arkestra’s performers were at their peak – and Ra conceived some very interesting, rather unpredictable collectives during these years that are very much worth hearing.

This is, perhaps, the least of Ra’s celebrated periods (if a decade can even begin to do justice to the enormity of Sun Ra's varied output), despite several appearances on film and a truly bizarre, yet dynamic TV appearance on Saturday Night Live) and most notable for the somewhat limited and barely (at the time) known appearances of the exceptional The Night Of The Purple Moon (Saturn, 1970), the film Space Is The Place (1972), the superb Cosmos (Cobra, 1976) and the outstanding Languidity (Philly Jazz, 1978).

But there were many other notable and even lesser-known releases from the great Sun Ra during this weird decade for music that only Art Yard has deigned to pick up and make available to the CD-buying public.

Art Yard issues all of their Sun Ra releases with a loving and respectful care that apparently gets the official benediction of the Ra estate (seemingly headed by the indefatigable 85-year old Marshall Allen, who leads his own Arkestra now).

All of the discs sampled below, from CDs I’ve purchased over the last few months, feature very nice tri-fold digipak cases on nice stock with covers that, one would guess, were put together rather recently – and admittedly, lovingly – by someone with a good desktop design program and a sense of the quick, quasi-sci-fi Saturn designs. This suggests the original Saturn LP releases either had multiple cover images or no image at all. Both instances might be true.

However, in all cases, Art Yard has done a tremendous job bringing this music out into the public domain, even if the presentation isn’t as generic – or as unprofessional – as the original LP release and there is generally too little detail provided on the recording, such as exact recording dates, songwriting credits or liner notes to explain the genesis or importance of the music.

None of this changes the importance or validity of Sun Ra’s great music. Witness.

The Antique Blacks - Sun Ra and his Myth Science Solar Arkestra (Saturn/Art Yard, 1974): A smaller version of the Arkestra than usual features on this mostly interesting Sun Ra recording from August 1974, supposedly recorded between the thus-far lost Saturn issues of Out Beyond The Kingdom Of and Sub-underground, and issued on Ra’s Saturn label in 1978. The recording is said by discographers – and certainly not indicated anywhere on this extraordinarily worthy Art Yard release – to have emanated from Ra’s Philadelphia home. Sun Ra, who sticks mostly to the RMI Rock-si-chord here, as he does on the brilliantly wonderful The Night Of The Purple Moon (where the instrument was listed as a “Roksichord”), is accompanied by only John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, Danny Davis, Akh Tal Ebah, Clifford Jarvis, James Jackson, Atakatune and the mysteriously labeled “Sly” (Dale Williams) on electric guitar. With one exception, it’s a chance to listen to Ra state his “metaphysical declamations,” which is somewhat like marrying the monologue bits of A Joyful Noise with the Arkestra’s otherwise musical and mostly free passages. Ra did not often recite his wordplay philosophies on record and there’s probably a pretty good reason for that: it’s often barely clever and otherwise detracts from the glory of the music he fostered and captured on such records as this. If, however, you tune out these chants and the monologues, the music is somewhat ecstatic and energizing. Both Gilmore (on tenor sax) and Allen (on alto sax) have worthy – and properly free – moments that will make Arkestra fans rejoice. Another happy surprise is the unusual presence of the guitarist, “Sly,” who wah-wahs himself throughout the proceedings in a cop-show funk fashion that is extraordinarily welcome in Sun Ra’s Omniverse. Without a doubt, the album’s highpoint is the tremendous opener, the surprisingly generically titled “Song No. 1,” one of the great blues pieces Ra and company have contributed to the musical lexicon. Throughout, Sun Ra provides many beautiful keyboard palettes, mostly on “Song No. 1” as well as “There is Change in the Air,” the otherwise silly “This Song is Dedicated to Nature’s God” (a line which, in fact, serves as the lyrics to the song) and the ridiculously titled “The Ridiculous ‘I’ and the Cosmos Me.” Ra goes crazy on the Moog synthesizer for “You Thought You Could Build A World Without Us,” forcing the listener to deal with a goofy sort of sci-fi platitude that nearly undermines the serious musicality of what came before it. Still, a very rare and valuable document nonetheless, The Antique Blacks is worthwhile for the magical “Song No. 1” and some of Sun Ra’s enchanting playing on the Rocksichord.

Disco 3000 - Sun Ra (Saturn/Art Yard, 1978): In early 1978, Sun Ra was invited to Italy to perform several concerts. He took only Arkestra mainstay John Gilmore (on tenor sax), trumpeter Michael Ray (who had recently toured with the Stylistics and claims to have never played jazz before) and drummer Luqman Ali with him. While he was there, Ra was offered several recording opportunities. A number of the performances, including this live show from January 23, 1978, were recorded as well. The best bits of this concert were pulled to make a 1978 album called Disco 3000, which has as much to do with disco as anyone who knows Sun Ra would imagine: absolutely nothing. Oddly, the Art Yard label issued a two-disc version of Ra’s small-group concert called Disco 3000: The Complete Milan Concert 1978 several years ago, including the original LP’s four tracks PLUS the other previously unissued eight tracks from the concert. The disc had one of Art Yard’s peculiar covers (doused in red) and is now all but impossible to acquire inexpensively. For some reason, Art Yard deleted this “complete” version of the concert in favor of a 2009 CD release of the four-track, 45-minute version of the original 1978 LP (with another weird illustration, featuring a trippy pencil sketch of Ra, etc. over a white background – still nothing like the original Saturn cover). The version under review here is the newest Art Yard CD, which mimics the original LP of the same name. The 26-minute title track, which also features a sampling of “Space Is The Place,” was edited a bit to fit on the original Saturn LP and edited even further (and remixed slightly) to create a 2-minute, 43-second 45-rpm single (!) called “Disco 2100,” backed by an edited version of this album’s “Sky Blues,” both of which can be heard on the 1996 Evidence CD The Singles. On this CD, the song is heard in its full glory with Ra on the mysterious electronic keyboard, the Crumar Mainman – which, despite all protestations to the contrary, really exists: he can be seen playing the keyboard in the film A Joyful Noise (1981) - and an early electric drum machine/rhythm box (which he also uses expeditiously on “Friendly Galaxy”). “Third Planet” returns Ra to the acoustic keyboard and allows his three musical companions a chance to explore at length, most pleasingly, to the best of their talents. Particularly nice here is John Gilmore, who gets to shine more brightly on his own than he’s probably been heard to in quite some time. Ra’s “Dance of The Cosmo Aliens” is little more than an electronic rewrite of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” but no less fascinating. The horns are completely out of the mix here and Ali works out a groove that is relentlessly spiky and unique, thorny and melodic all at once. Ra, himself, does a stupendous job setting out an orchestral timbre on his electronic keyboards. Many others would do this sort of thing in the safety of a studio with retakes and overdubs. Ra makes it plain that jazz is not about that. This unusual and misleadingly-titled outing was some of the strongest and most creative jazz that came out of 1978 and very, very few people knew about it then – and still more need to appreciate it better today.

Media Dreams - Sun Ra (Saturn/Art Yard, 1978): Named for the Italian studio where several studio dates were recorded for the Italian Horo label, Media Dream (no “s” at the end) was originally an LP taken from the tapes of one or possibly more live concerts recorded during January 1978 while Sun Ra was in Italy with tenor saxist John Gilmore, trumpeter Michael Ray and drummer Luqman Ali (it was also issued as a Saturn album with a different number called Saturn Research). The original and ultra-rare Saturn album(s) featured “SatUrN ReseArch” (caps from the discographies, not listed this way on the Art Yard release), “Constellation,” “Yera (sic) of the Sun,” “Media Dreams,” “Twigs At Twilight” and “An Unbeknoweth Love.” This music makes up the first of the two discs included in this remarkable Art Yard release. The second disc features an additional seven titles from the same or similar performances that have not appeared elsewhere before. Apparently tapes have not yet been located that include other music from this performance, notably “Jazzisticology,” which turned up on the LP Sound Mirror. Ra plays a variety of keyboards throughout, including the piano, organ, Moog synthesizer and the rhythm machine. The quartet is at its best on “Constellation,” with great passages from Gilmore, Ray and Ra on the organ and synthesizer, gesturing elaborately and wonderfully (I swear somebody else is playing keyboards here too…it’s hard to believe one man, even Sun Ra, can make all of those sounds happen live). “Year of the Sun” and “Media Dreams” contain many of the fascinating – if you care for this sort of thing – keyboard antics Ra issued on the Solar Myth Approach discs a full decade before (reissued as Strange Worlds on the UK label Atom in 2005). Ra is heard resplendently on piano for “Twigs at Twilight” and “An Unbeknoweth Love.” Oddly, many of the performances are faded out and faded in, like we’re just hearing part of what was really captured. I don’t know if this is just what was edited to fit onto an LP or not, but while it is an annoying fact of this disc (which may see a revision somewhere down the road as Disco 3000 before it did), it’s not a deal breaker. What is here is positively wonderful. The real secret to this set, however, is the wondrous second disc, which has not been heard prior to this Art Yard release. Included here is the more spritely than usual “Friendly Galaxy,” the better-than-the-previous disc’s “An Unbenoweth Love,” the synth groove of “Of Other Tomorrows Never Known,” the great group piece “Images” (with Sun Ra, probably on Rocksichord, sounding positively inspired), the swinging (and singing) “The Truth About Planet Earth” (“…is a bad truth…”), the too-predictable yet more exciting than usual “Space Is The Place” and the brief Gilmore solo piece, “The Shadow World.” Ra and company were especially inspired during these performances. And it’s nice to hear Sun Ra adapt his groove to a much smaller component than usual. One especially notable advantage to this disc over the other Art Yards is the presence of Chris Trent’s decent, if rather poorly spellchecked, liner notes. Art Yard usually doesn’t bother with liner notes or recording detail/anomalies. Trent’s notes are helpful and welcome and help explain some of the mysteries Art Yard doesn’t seem to otherwise share with its buyers. Still, its hard to fault the company for lack of care with Sun Ra. Media Dreams is evidence that the company cares a whole lot about Sun Ra and his earthly legacy. And while Media Dreams will hardly satisfy a Sun Ra fan on any side of any fence, it will certainly please some of the people some of the time.

On Jupiter - Sun Ra and his Arkestra (Saturn/Art Yard, 1979): One of the more soulful entries in the Arkestra’s eclectic catalog, this 1980 album contains only three songs recorded in early 1979 and October 1979, totaling just under 30 minutes of music. But what tremendous music indeed. The four-minute title track opens the disc with Ra glittering on piano and easily reminds one of the Ra that made Jazz In Silhouette, Sun Song or Supersonic Jazz so dramatically compelling so early on. The real surprise here, though, is the unbelievably funky – yes, funky – “UFO,” on which Ra shares appropriate (and unacknowledged on the Art Yard disc) writing credit with electric guitarist Taylor Richardson and electric bassist Steve Clarke, who lay a thick foundation that would not sound unfamiliar or disagreeable to fans of Parliament, Kool and the Gang or even SNL’s Stuff. There are several chants here with someone singing falsetto that gave titles to later Ra tunes but there’s also the unusually unfortunate cliché “you can fool some of the people some of the time...”. Ra, again, maintains his majesty on the acoustic piano, but one has to wonder if he was really comfortable in this sort of groove as he sounds more swept up than sweeping on this particular number. The bulk of the album is taken up with the splendor of the well-titled 17-minute opus “Seductive Fantasy,” which originally filled the whole of the LP’s second side. Ra is heard again manning the acoustic piano throughout for an exploratory jam that snakes unusual woodwinds (oboe, bass clarinet and bassoon) around an arsenal of moody percussion treatments. This is the most filmic the Arkestra has ever sounded, offering up a “seductive” variation of their more out-there sound. It would have been interesting to have heard the Arkestra, who recorded “Seductive Fantasy” and “On Jupiter” in between other little-known Saturn albums Ominverse and I, Pharoah, ply this groove a bit more. Sounds like Jupiter is the place to be so “you, U-F-O, take me where I want to go.”

Sleeping Beauty - Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Myth Science Solar Arkestra (Saturn/Art Yard, 1979): Among the least known of all of Sun Ra’s many, many recordings and perhaps one of the most spiritual records the Arkestra ever did – and that’s saying something - Sleeping Beauty is a gorgeous free-flowing piece of exploratory jazz in the groove that people into the Strata-East thing would find especially appealing. It’s not too free and, of course, not as poppy as anything else that came out of the time. Sun Ra is heard here mostly on electric piano. There is something spacey, earthy and suggesting a time-frame a few years earlier than this June 1979 New York recording date that Art Yard does not credit. There are only three tunes to be heard here and, unfortunately, only 30 minutes of music to be heard (no extras from the original Saturn release, also sometimes known as Door of the Cosmos). But all is wondrous. “Springtime Again” is magical. “Door of the Cosmos,” in particular, is a terrifically funky piece that features guitarist Taylor Richardson – a sound that doesn’t often appear on Arkestra recordings – Michael Ray on trumpet, John Gilmore on tenor, Ra resplendent on electric piano and the rare vibes sound of Damon Choice. The singers are heard (to minimal effect) and Choice’s vibes are heard again here on the breathtakingly subtle title track (which also features the glorious Marshall Allen and a lovely trombone soloist). It’s a grand performance on many levels. There are a few ways to read this song. But I prefer just to enjoy the sounds that Ra and the Arkestra laid it down. All in all, one of Sun Ra’s greatest of many great recordings.

Also on Art Yard: More Sun Ra including Horizon (1971), Nidhamu (more from the Cairo concert that produced Horizon)/Dark Myth Equation Visitation (1971, another Cairo concert formerly issued as Live In Egypt and Nature’s God) and Beyond The Purple Star Zone (1980, on LP only thus far).


dka said...

I was sorry to hear about the demise of Evidence label, they did a great job on the re-release of the early Sun Ra Saturns. Art Yard are also doing a fantastic job with some of the later ones. I'm not quite sure why they have two versions of Disco 3000, but I would say that the cover design to their latest release of the original LP is the same as on my vinyl copy of Disco 3000 which I bought back in the late 70's.

Art Yard said...

Hi Douglas,
Thanks for your words on the Art Yard releases, it has taken much work to get this going, despite the difficulties running an independent and occasional mistakes in production, 'I am still here'! and have now been doing this work for six years. It seems to me now, that Sun Ra is one of the most published artists of the 21st century! So Despite the endless bootlegs, 'free for all digital downloads' from share websites and some official releases i hope to be here for some years to come. My intention is to get Sun Ra's recordings released with a degree of artistic integrity.

I have been trying to get it right with these releases, and keep it in the ethos of Sun Ra, in the way that the records/ CDs are presented, El Saturn was a Underground record label which issued LPs with various hybrid or generic sleeves, many hand drawn images were applied or stuck on, or they would be issued in 'plane blank sleeves'. I can only try to emulate The Arkestra's work, This way I hope to add to these concept recordings, not distract! The point being is that as you may know Sun Ra was something of a mystic and reliable information behind the scenes is hard to come by, a lot of the El Saturn releases do not even have a line up of the musicians, so I do commission research from the people that were there at the time, we are doing our utmost. Michael Ray has written liners for the release of Disco 3000 and Knoel Scott for the Paris tapes 1971 to be released later this year. Michael Anderson has also written liners for The Antique Blacks vinyl edition that will be pressed soon. Hartmut Geerken has written much about the recordings made in Cairo Egypt and his work, as did Salah Ragab. I will try to get some more words from the book Omniverse transcribed for an insight, which will be printed on 10 inch vinyls in a box set recordings from Cairo/ Paris/ Milan and others 'some Unreleased' and some recordings from Salah Ragab via Kindred Spirits the record company in The Netherlands with whom I collaborate. Rick Steiger has also written about the Sun Ra Detroit residency which Beyond the Purple Star Zone came from and also Oblique Parallax those two El Saturn's albums will be released on one CD this year, if all goes to plan.

Sun Ra's approached the El Saturn label as a series of concept albums, and we are still putting the pieces of the puzzle back together, as it is great to listen to the whole of the Disco 3000 concert with all the tracks in context, and that's available on Itunes ect, bonus tracks are a wonderful addition, but the original album cut for Disco 3000 and Media Dream were how Sun Ra wanted the works to be presented, that's why I have re-pressed Disco 3000 in its original form, - 'its a concept album'.

Unlike most record labels these days I don't go in for the big promotion advertising angle, its far too expensive! or write assessments of the work in hand - stating how important these recording are!, nor do I do trendy DJ promotion party's. I hope the Art Yard releases stand up to contemporary sinersisium or criticism and get the attention they deserve and positively reviewed in the music press to bring them into the public awareness. This work is about restoring Sun Ra's recordings and making them available once again, Sun Ra's music should be accessible to everyone, not just the elite few who can afford to spend five hundred dollars on a rare original Saturn LP.

Art Yard is a small independent record company and publisher that continues in its struggle into the 21st Century - and has done the right thing by working in collaboration with The Sun Ra Arkestra under direction of Marshall Allen - Give The Credit Where Credit is Due.

'it is what it is'.

I hope you dig the music - listen to the Cosmo Song.

Peter Dennett
Art Yard London

RJ said...

I'm reading "Space is the Place", the excellent Sun Ra bio by John Szwed. It inspired me to dig back into my old vinyl LP collection-- I remember buying a couple of Sun Ra LP's at a concert back in the late 70's, either in Ann Arbor or Detroit.

Anyway, I located two LPs:

"Disco 3000"-- the cover has the same drawing that is on the CD (drawing only, no typography); it has been glued to a blank cover.

"Media Dreams"-- this one is in a totally blank cover.

I've tried to find info on these or similar old LPs but have been able to come up with very little other than that they would appear to be extremely rare. I'm just trying to get a general idea of how much these LPs might be worth.

Any info or insight that anyone might have about this would be appreciated.



Matt said...

A lot of the Sun-Ra albums from the 70s were private pressings, so small in number and now quite rare. You could try Vinyl Exchange - They have been established for years now (if not decades, I've certainly been going there for over 20 years) and I've seen them sell a couple. You are probably looking at the hundreds, realistically, depending on condition.