Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Sun Ra Companion

This ever-expanding post is intended as a humble reference guide to some of the entries in the amazing discography of Sun Ra provided by where you will find downloads of almost all of the fantastic recordings. My reviews are going to be mostly of the more obscure stuff, with occasional comments on the more well known.

(Regarding the more well known recordings - these have been comparatively easy to find and are all in the 3-5 star range. You can't go wrong with any. You can easily find reviews of these elsewhere. Those that I particularly recommend are in bold type -

Sun Song - Sound of Joy - SuperSonic Jazz - Jazz in Silhouette - Spaceship Lullaby - Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra - When Sun Comes Out - Angels and Demons At Play - Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow - Fate In A Pleasant Mood - Rocket #9/Interstellar Low Ways - Heliocentric Worlds 1&2 - Other Planes of There - Nubians of Plutonia - Magic City - Atlantis - Visits Planet Earth - When Angels Speak of Love - Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy - Strange Strings - We Travel The Spaceways - Monorails and Satellites - Holiday For Soul Dance - Night of the Purple Moon - Nothing Is - Sound Sun Pleasure!! - Solar-Myth Approach 1&2 - Bad and Beautiful - Cymbals - Crystal Spears - Space Is The Place - Space Is The Place (OST) - Friendly Love - Pathways To Unknown Worlds - Live at Montreux - Lanquidity - Some Blues But Not the Kind That's Blue - Blue Delight - Purple Night - The Singles...)

Selected thumbnail reviews (alphabetical):

The Antique Blacks - a swinging Latin jam to begin, before getting down to a delightful suite of space philosophy. (Note the great but very brief noise-guitar outbursts. So good - no-one else at the time - 1974 - was approaching this, other than Sonny Sharrock or Pete Cosey on a good day, or Japanese guitar god Masayuki Takayanagi. Consulting Robert L. Campbell's 'Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra''s Dale Williams - at 15! Jeez). The expanded 2009 version has a great synth-centric bonus track - 'You Thought You Could Build A World Without Us '.*****

Black Myth / Out In Space -one of the best live documents of the Arkestra, recorded at two German festivals in the fall of 1970. Very good sound and inspired performances. Giant ensemble sections; solos and duets; and excellent versions of some of the space chants. This was the band at its most aggressive and experimental - no standards or blues here. *****

Celestial Love - Arkestra in top form on jazzy romp from 1982. 5 of 8 tracks also appear on 'Nuclear War' cd.****

Continuation - took many tries to get this one to download but worth it. (Has two extraneous tracks tacked on - one is, I believe, an edit from Ann Arbor Jazz And Blues Festival and the other from Hal Willner's Disney tribute). ****

Cosmos - very good, swinging Paris date. Excellent solos from Gilmore and Allen, esp. ****

Dance Of Innocent Passion - I had never heard of this joyful 1980 NYC gig. Some particularly unhinged keyboard work. Terrific. *****

Detroit Jazz Center - as far as my experience goes, flac is a complete pain in the ass. And that guy over at Transparency deserves much $upport, anyway, for his incredible work. So I bought this one rather than downloading. The sound is generally quite good. Raw and punchy - and being from the sound board, soloists and especially Ra's electric keys are usually right up front. ****

Discipline 27-II - the driving percussive 'Pan-Afro'; the tough, aggressive 'Discipline 8'; the swinging 'Neptune'; and, finally, the charming and generous-of-spirit call & response of the epic title tune. ****1/2

Disco 3000 - great stuff. Get both the expansive 2cd reissue and the single record version. On the original, while lacking the nice stereo, the Crumar Mainman that Ra plays dominates the mix more - that cool robotic effect. *****

Featuring Pharoah Sanders And Black Harold (aka 'Gods On A Safari') - an abstract and organically cohesive group of tunes, immediately preceding 'Heliocentric Worlds Vol. 1', to which it has some stylistic similarities. The presence of the featured soloists, esp flautist Black Harold, sets it apart. New, expanded version is imminent. ****

A Fireside Chat with Lucifer - 2 tracks in common with 'Nuclear War' but not the side-long title track, which is pretty appealing, if not quite fulfilling the promise of its inspired name. ***1/2

God Is More Than Love Can Ever Be - I think this is, surprisingly, as close to a piano trio date as Ra ever got (the first tune has weird overdubbed or double tracked piano). A good one. ****

Heliocentric Worlds Vol. 3 - a worthy addition to Vol's 1&2. Of similar style and quality. The lengthy 'Intercosmosis' is a feast of 'outside' saxophone. ****1/2

Hidden Fire 1 - this and vol.2 were the last of the original Saturn releases. Very good sets from the Knitting Factory, NY, 1988. Screwball vocals by Art Jenkins. (Half of vol.2 can be found as 'My Brother the Wind and Sun #9' combined with the 1995 Leo version of 'A Night in East Berlin'). I got some dead air at the end of track 1 on the Rapidshare version but the Mediafire seems fine. ****

Hiroshima - generously includes both parts of 'Stars That Shine Darkly' but, to me, the all-star band (L.Bowie, Shepp, Don Cherry, etc.) doesn't really work all that well. Does include 14 minutes or so of solo pipe-organ on the title tune. **

I, Pharaoh - sound is a bit harsh, as is the title track declamation. **1/2

It Is Forbidden - an unruly beast of a record. Performance and recording are raw as can be. (Unfortunately the last couple minutes of this post are marred by an apparent damaged cd). ***1/2

Live At Chestnut Cabaret - lots-of-fun audience boot. And the 'Nuclear War' here is the best I've heard. ****

Live At Praxis - yet another thouroughly engaging high-spirited live document of the '80's Arkestra. ***1/2

Live At The Gibus, Paris - very good gig. Comes bundled with an edited 'Discipline 27-II' so make a burn of tracks 1-5 and get the complete 'D. 27-II' separately. ****

Live At The Horseshoe Tavern Toronto 1978 - another giant Transpanency set (10 cds), overlooked somewhat in comparison to even bigger 'Detroit Jazz Center' set. Nobody has posted it yet but Ed Pinsent @ The Sound Projector offers a generous 1 hour podcast of highlights. (****)

Live in Cleveland - lo-fi in all the right ways - a bass-heavy in-your-face brute. Excellent readings of 'I, Pharaoh' (medleyed with 'Friendly Galaxy 2' here) and 'Astro-Nation', a huge synth solo including an apparent reappearance of the beloved Crumar Mainman (see 'Disco 3000') and other crowd pleasers. Not the most adventurous, but the band is in 'stonking form'. Not sure of the exact meaning of that but it sounds about right. ****1/2

Live In Egypt Vol.1 - really good, lively set with some gnarly synth. Recording is a bit distant, though.*** ('Sun Rise In Egypt' Volumes 1-3, different records, apparently bootlegs. Unfortunately flac only but what I was able to DL sounds good).

Media Dreams - like 'Disco 3000' you need both versions - the original single lp and the expanded 2cd reissue. Absolutely great. *****

My Brother The Wind Vol.1 - quite the historic document. Sun Ra's first encounter with a prototype Moog sythesizer, with synth tech Gershon Kingsley reprogramming as the session progresses. Excellent.*****

My Brother The Wind Vol.2 - very nice combination of group pieces with organ and Ra synth solos (assuming this is the original as reissued by Evidence - some Saturn versions substituted tracks from 'Outer Spaceways Incorporated'). *****

New Steps & Other Voices, Other Blues - rare 2lp studio sets on Horo. From the same Italian trip as 'Media Dreams' and 'Disco 3000'. Less crazy than them, but also featuring basslines supplied by Ra's Crumar Mainman keyboard. Lots of John Gilmore (tenor sax) and Michael Ray (tpt).****/****

Night Of The Purple Moon - Friendly and intimate session, Ra featuring his Roksichord. *****

Nidhamu - as with 'Space Probe', includes side-long synth solo. Also a masterpiece. Why are noisy synth players so hard to find in Free Jazz and free improv? (See 'Space Probe' entry).

Nuits De La Fondation Maeght Vol.1 & 2 - excellent document of the Arkestra in 1970 (as is 'Black Myth/Out in Space'). Originally on the Shandar label, which deserves a blog itself - monumental releases by Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, etc. Volume 1 has the edge, thanks to a lengthy synth excursion on 'The Cosmic Explorer'. ****1/2

Oblique Parallax - three tracks, building in intensity, excised from three different sets now included in the Detroit JazzCenter box. Starts with Ra alone, the second is a organ/ French horn duet with incidental drumming. Third track begins similarly before Arkestra enters for dramatic finale that resolves into monolithic synth solo. Excellent. ****1/2

Of Mythic Worlds - exemplary live show. Starts with strong 'Mayan Temples', ends with awesome title track.****

Omniverse - mostly a relatively straight-ahead session, Ra on piano.***

Pleiades - as could be expected, the presence of a symphony orchestra contingent tempers the Arkestra's unruly exuberance. Some nice passages, though, and gets better as it goes. Worth comparing to the harder rockin' 'Live At The Hackney Empire' from the next night - without symphony add-ons.**1/2

Ra To The Rescue - see also 'When Spaceships Appear'. This is the more compact, focussed version. (The placement of 'They Plan To Leave' at the end makes me appreciate this song anew. While the lyrics might be essentially hopeful, the music is bittersweet at least, and maybe heartbreaking). ****

Santa Cruz 1987 - very entertaining live boot. Very well recorded, although the balance between instruments is rather eccentric. The opening warm-up is skippable but the fun quotient ramps up quickly after that. is the correct address. Ignore the set lists. ***1/2

Second Star To The Right - Ra and crew have big fun with these Disney tunes. Some great alto playing also. From the same gig as 'Stardust From Tomorrow', a more typical setlist which is also worth hearing.***

Soul Vibrations Of Man - apparently one of the great ones, a soulful ritualistic affair. (Unfortunately somewhere in its journey this particular rip suffered some Auto Level Control - the inevitable pops and clicks cause the volume to dip). (*****)

Sound Mirror - short (26+ mins) but very strong with sprawling title tune. ****

Space Probe - fantastic. Features a side-long synth solo. (One of the links suffers from some digital distortion or scratched cd or something on the first group tune. Luckily there is an alternate version without the clicking. But the synth solo sounds a bit better on the faulty post. So download both and mix and match tracks). *****

Sub Underground (aka 'Temple U', 'Cosmo-Earth Fantasy') - meditative masterpiece.*****

Strange Celestial Road - superslick space funk. In the 'Lanquidity' mode.****

Taking A Chance On Chances -A really rough dub, but it has some audio-verite charm. My download was missing the last tune, 'Take The 'A' Train'. **1/2

The Singles - a great and fascinating collection, spanning the breadth of the Arkestra's work, and then some. Vocal groups, sci-fi vignettes, blues - somehow it all fits. And Yochannan, the Space Age Vocalist, is unforgettable. *****

Unity - another 2lp Horo set, this one live in NYC 1977 ( 2 tracks France, '76). Very good. Very energised. Mostly a celebration of Sun Ra's big band roots. 13 tracks, all under 10 minutes. Ra rocks the organ and Roksichord. *****

Voice Of The Eternal Tomorrow (aka 'The Rose Hue Mansions Of The Sun')- not just another club date - this one's a major statement. Starts with a huge synth solo, continues with solos punctuated by ensemble eruptions before the calm resolution. ****

When Spaceships Appear - much of the same material as 'Ra To The Rescue', reordered, retitled and three tracks added. Someone once commented on Ra's knack for finding the true voice of electric keyboards. You get a big dose of that here. Lots of people play synths like pianos and hope they sound like violins. Sun Ra, on the other hand, would reach into the guts of the thing and pull out the scornful beast lurking there. Followed, of course, by a loping piano blues.****