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The Rarest Ra : A Tour of the Latest Evidence-Excavated Arkestral Antiquities

Sun Ra's discography is an archivist's nightmare. Nearly five decades deep with a log of entries that stretches well into the triple digits, his recorded legacy is one of the most convoluted in 20th century music. Unlike Ellington whose work was both heralded, scrutinized and meticulously cataloged throughout his career, Ra's prolificacy went largely unmapped until relatively recent years through the efforts of such Arkestral scholars as Robert L. Campbell. Adding to the mystery was the way in which Ra documented his own work through recording. Calling his methods haphazard would be a gross understatement and who knows what tapes still lie languishing in dusty canisters waiting to be unleashed upon the world. Fortunately for all of us there are labels such as Evidence that have taken up the call of returning relics from Ra's kaleidoscopic catalog to wide-spread circulation.

Two of the four discs in Evidence's most recent wave of reissues come from Ra's first flirtation with a major label—Impulse, which at the time of the recordings was a subsidiary of the corporate behemoth ABC Records. As might be expected the precarious relationship between Ra and the corporate Suits didn't last long, but it did survive long enough for ten albums from the Saturn Records back catalog to be issued. Material from at least a dozen other LPs was perused but eventually passed on by the Suits and returned to Saturn. Crystal Spears, Cymbals and Friendly Love come from this 'rejected' batch of music and all three are released for the first time in these new Evidence incarnations.

When Angels Speak of Love and Lanquidity are in some ways bookends to these core sessions. The former, originally released on Saturn, was recorded at the Choreographer's Workshop in New York City and dates from the Arkestra's fertile residency there. The latter is different both in terms of form and substance. Initially released on the Philly Jazz label it presents a Philadelphia version of the Arkestra at the close of the 1970s that dips into some unexpected influences. All four releases caulk gaping holes in Ra's interstellar oeuvre, particularly his 70s output, and each is an advisable acquisition for anyone interested in the man's music. Capsule reviews of all four releases follow.

Which Saturn LP holds the distinction of scarcest Arkestra artifact? Like most trivia surrounding Sun Ra the answer is widely open to debate and the very fabric of his work invites such speculation. Hand-painted, hand-printed, hand-circulated copies were the norm for Saturn Records. Discographical accuracy and consistency were often a distant afterthought and gauging from the degree of disorder it's a wonder that we have as complete a picture of the Arkestra's recorded history as we do. What's even more amazing is the manner in which this disarray stands in contrast to Ra's music itself, which was often a model of precision and judiciously maintained discipline.

Writer John Corbett casts his vote for When Angels Speak Of Love in his incisively penned liners and it was his own vinyl copy of the record that helped make the reissue possible. Elsewhere in advance press from Evidence a convincing argument is made for Lanquidity as the rarest of the rare. Whether or not this disc is the scarcest in terms of existing numbers, after one listen it becomes apparent that astronomically speaking it's situated fairly far out in the Sun Ra cosmos.

Stylistically this disc has a great deal in common with other albums from the same space/time continuum. Sharing the almost obsessive preoccupation with tape delay and reverb that marks such classics as Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy, it integrates such manipulations into the Arkestra sound in real time. Doing double duty as percussionist and sound engineer Bugs Hunter works his equipment, both soundboard and drum kit, like a man possessed. Whistling reverb-saturated oboe, ferrous trumpet and a panoply of shrill overtones from each signal the start of "Celestial Fantasy". Sparse echoplex percussion soon comes to the fore flanked by Clifford Jarvis' choppy drum fills and cymbal accents, which hold and carry the amorphous rhythmic signal through Ronnie Boykins' perambulating bass plucks. "The Idea of It All" is a spastic Be-Bop blanketed piece that rests feverishly on a lumpy percussive pillow. The opening John Gilmore solo excoriates at the same time it emancipates and Ra punches his acoustic keys with the intensity of a mad accountant at an astrological adding machine racking up digits and figures ad infinitum. Walter Miller's pipsqueak trumpet pipes in seeking to calm the pianist, but Ra will not be dissuaded from his appointed course charging full force to the end.

On the "Ecstasy of Being" Boykins and Jarvis join in muffled conference while other Arkestra members interject their opinions through peripheral percussive instruments. Danny Davis enters on pinched alto, shaping an arid solo of squealing inflated lines and Miller answers over Jarvis' hollow, corrugated drums. Davis returns, running a relay between instruments before he and Miller dive completely into a roiling stream of echolalic lines saturated in Hunter's heady reverb.

The title track is short in length, but densely packed, as Boykins' bass thrum and clip-clop percussion are phalanxed by a line of satiny horns. Pat Patrick's velveteen baritone breaks ranks for a brief spat with Ra's piano and it's Miller's turn next, singing a bright, breathy ode to the heavens. Patrick plays a plaintive coda and Miller takes the tune out to an abrupt end.

The concluding "Next Stop Mars" takes off on a space chant with heavy echo giving way to Ra's bustling piano. Horns blast forward with the reed section firing up the jets first on a furious solo from Robert Cummings followed by brass. Hunter's chopstick-like percussion scribbles a broken rhythmic commentary on the garrulous horn debate. Fitful starts and stops perforated by Ra's dense comping ensue before Miller's brass pauses for a lonely reflection and Gilmore swoops in for a solo singed in a flaming arc of multiphonics. Ra returns in a wash of Obsidian chords opening the harmonic gates for Cummings, who rushes forward again bleating with vinegar astringency. Miller takes another paregoric solo and Marshall Allen surrounded by the other horns takes the album out. All of this transpires in the space of a mere forty minutes—making an immediate return visit a must.

Recorded a full decade after When Angels Speak of Love, Pathways to Unknown Worlds and Friendly Love—a pair of albums gathered on one disc—still find Ra and the Arkestra traveling similar spaceways. Changes are evident both in Ra's keyboard accoutrements and in the nature of the compositions. Both albums rely far less on strictly composed structures and passages and more on cued ensemble and individual improvisations. Pathways is most striking for the aperture in provides into the relationship between Ra and Boykins. The two men are at the rhythmic and tonal center of each of the four pieces and their interplay conjures immediate correlations with the recent work of Alan Silva and William Parker. On the opening title track scurrilous trumpet and bass clarinet announce themselves over Jarvis' martial press rolls. Akh Tal Ebah enters on fuzzed out mellophone, mixing it up with Danny Thompson's baritone, before the horns drop out and Ra and Boykins engage in the first of several sorties into the figurative innards of their instruments. Bubbling sonar blips, accelerating Doppler tone swathes and barbed string streaks vie for supremacy in the sections where acoustic bass and electronic apparatus intertwine all before the inevitable termination point.

Changing direction, the Ra populates "Untitled" with mysteriously beamed keyboard lights, craggy drums and brushes, and the banshee wail of an unidentified horn. Eloe Omoe and Kwame Hadi burn at a solar heat (on bass clarinet and trumpet respectively) on "Extension Out", searing through an undulating gauntlet of percussion. Stinging overblown lines singe a winding trail of space-borne drum debris before Boykins' bass and Ra's waveform keys surface once again for another communion that carries over into "Cosmo Media". On this last piece Boykins' strings emulate the pitch prestidigitation of Ra's wildly aspirating notes while Gilmore solos frenetically pinching off a continuous volley of puckered upper register squeals. Hadi follows for a brief statement before a Ra-led finale.

Friendly Love focuses even further attention on Ra's plenary keyboards thanks to the unfortunate absence of Boykins' bass and a definitive drummer. Broken into four parts, the album-length piece starts with tinkling preface from Ra. Hadi blows a soothing solo over a chugging keyboard/conga backdrop followed by Omoe on contra-alto clarinet, who takes it out. Hiccupping horns fronted by the beastly Neptunian libflecto descend on Part II as the dark chortles and serrated guffaws of Hadi's trumpet push through the motley din alongside Davis' dusky alto. This piece, aside from the beautiful work by Hadi and Davis, lacks the hermetic cohesion of its counterparts and listening to the barrage of murky dissonance it's easy to see why the Impulse Suits were scared off by these sounds.

Parts III and IV regain focus narrowing on Ra's carnival calliope swirls. His initial improvisation on the former sounds like some mad Messiaen pipe organ interlude and is dappled by Atakatune's conga drum drizzle. Later honking horns scuffle good-naturedly over metallic drum feedback. Part IV moves forward on momentum of a discernable rhythmic thrust thanks to Atakatune's staccato palm rolls. Hadi, in a decidedly quizzical mood, tests the dimensions of Ra's luminous Moog-patterned topography before Gilmore's stargazing tenor departs a protracted survey of the surroundings in the altissimo register of his horn. The segment eventually fades on the strength of Gilmore's solo dissipating quietly into the ether.

As Ed Michel's liner notes to this set point out, Sun Ra's fleeting deal with Impulse resulted in the reissue and widespread distribution of numerous Saturn treasures. But even more material was left in tape canisters having not passed muster with the Impulse corporate contingent. Cymbals and Crystal Spears, the two albums collected here, are from that neglected motherlode and both make their first appearance nearly 30 years after they were preserved on tape. Though recorded the same year, the individual albums highlight not only different aggregations of the Arkestra, but also different facets of the group's omniscient sound.

Ra resides mainly at the organ throughout Cymbals, floating over to his other keyboard instruments only on occasion. The record is cut from the same space-Soul groove that invigorates such other Arkestral outings as My Brother the Wind, Volume II. Omoe and Boykins share the bulk of "The World of the Invisible" trading striated exchanges with Ra's peripatetic keys. Throughout the piece Ra radiates glowing tonal sheets while Boykins' plucked solo that centers the piece is muffled but solidly resonant. "Thoughts Under a Dark Blue Light" hits on an immediate, if uncertain, groove thanks to Derek Morris' congas, Boykins' bass, Ra's wobbly fills and the shout of unison horns. The Blues are thick as skillet-crackling pig grease on this one as Gilmore steps to the celestial pulpit and belts out a tight and tasty R&B inflected solo that stretches across much of the girth of the tune and is arguably one of his finest tenor statements on record. Ra follows with an exposition of his own, flanked by Morris and Boykins, that sounds much like the Saturnian's equivalent of Jimmy Smith circa 1958 at Small's Paradise. A straight Ebah solo stamped with smears takes it out to an untimely fade.

"The Order of the Pharaonic Jesters" allows the horns a rest and Ra a chance to converse at length with the rhythm section over a slippery shuffle beat and sparkling melody. Boykins' walking ostinato is particularly up front and supple in the mix and works like magic against Ra's shimmering improvisations. Ebah pilots the ship on "The Mystery of the Two", blowing phosphorous shapes in the sky above a simmering rhythmic sea, while "Land of the Day Star" features Boykins and Davis, the former's bow chiseling a resonant rhythmic edifice from the gusts of cosmic dust kicked up by Ra's percolating keys. Davis' alluring solo is unfortunately faded mid-stride and the album comes to a regrettable end.

Crystal Spears is far more esoteric and finds the Arkestra in an orbit that is more elliptical and abstract. Whereas much of Cymbals takes root from openly discernable rhythms, the rhythmic end of matters here is far more often implied rather than overt. Adding to his ranks, Ra shapes a gothic sci-fi prelude on the title track—infusing his Moog with an array of whistling high frequency static. Atakatune and Odun, both on congas, arrive with Jarvis and craft a thatched rhythmic surface that goads Ra to add his marimba to the steaming keyboard soup. "The Eternal Sphynx" builds from a marching theme of the familiar Ra variety forwarded by unison and harmonizing horns and voltaic percussion. "Embassy of the Living God" parses the Arkestra into component parts. Brief solos from most of the Arkestra principals form the bulk tumbling along a frayed thread of melody, but just as often veering off into tangential space. Allen's oboe shears a path to the front of the pack—at one point pursued by Omoe's bass clarinet and eventually Davis and Gilmore. A multifarious solo from Ra prefaces a dense percussive shower before a final howling horn blowout. The concluding "Sunrise In the Western Sky" unfolds over a third of an hour. Allen's oboe opens over sparse drums and Ra's glistening electronic vibes, but the piece is largely subsumed by Gilmore's burnished recurring tenor. Unfortunately, other than Gilmore's marvelous long-spun solo there's not much else to fill the vast recesses of the piece and its great length ends up being somewhat unwarranted.

Skip forward five years to the height of the Fusion era. Nearly everyone associated with jazz was visited by the urge to plug in during the 1970s and revel in the hyaline waters of electronic amplification. Ra, in true harbinger fashion, had divined the possibilities decades earlier on such maiden voyages as his electronic piano opus "Advice For Medics" from Supersonic Jazz (1956). In fact, Ra's brief opening solo reverie on the title track of this disc conjures inviting parallels to the aforementioned pioneering piece. While such visionary experiments weren't Fusionary in the strictest sense they were the lineal progenitors of the music contained on Lanquidity.

A pervading groove, at times brash and corpulent ("Where Pathways Meet"), at others supple and svelte ("That's How I Feel") informs each of the five compositions and Ra's expansive, though skeletally simple arrangements give prominence to the rhythm section. Richard Williams' rubbery bass lines blend with Luqman Ali's spongy traps work and Artaukatune's hand percussion to create an oscillating fabric of rhythms for the horns and Ra's menagerie of keyboards to splash with tonal paints.

The other central voices are the trumpets of Michael Ray and Eddie Gale, both of whom mix the perfect measure of pathos and sass into their many statements. Just check what I'm assuming is Gale's gorgeous prefatory solo over throbbing bass and percussion on "That's How I Feel". Beguiling solos also stream forth from stalwarts like Allen (on oboe) and Gilmore blowing in virile balladic mode over the basic sliding shuffle beat. The funky, frothy swagger of "Where Pathways Meet" is given a further boost via Disco Kid's greasy-fingered solo that slips against the bulbous belt-busting baritone duo of Julian Pressley and Thompson. A ricocheting bass vamp fuels the atomic core of "Twin Stars of Thence" setting up a metronomic counterpoint to Ra's amplified ivory musings. A shimmering series of solos ensues all buttressed on the sturdy backs of the rhythm players. Space chant voices cast an other-dimensional spell on the concluding "There Are Other Worlds", the weakest track on the disc where half-baked vocal montages annex valuable instrument space. While closing on a comparatively conventional note the program still works as one of Ra's most unique and accessible sessions.

Originally released on the grass roots Philly Jazz label, the record quickly depleted its original pressing stock and has since become a high priced trophy for collectors. Now returned to widespread circulation, the reasons behind it's formerly opulent price tag are readily available and apparent. As a bonus a handful of fascinating snapshots from Ra's Philadelphia sanctum are included in the liners. Calling it Ra in a Fusion bag is reductionist and inevitably obscures the reality that he and his faithful entourage came first, but a highly palpable groove pervades nonetheless.