Album Reviews

Sun Ra and His Arkestra

At Inter-Media Arts - April 1991 and The Space Age Is Here to Stay

Artist:     Sun Ra and His Arkestra

Album:     At Inter-Media Arts and The Space Age Is Here to Stay

Label:     Modern Harmonic

Release Date:     11/25/2016

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This may be the most welcome surprise of the year. Sun Ra and his legendary bands were avant-garde before people heard of the term. They were both modal and electronic before other jazz artists started going that way. They were the “jam band” of jazz bands, much like the Grateful Dead were for rock. I recall the performance of what was then billed as Sun Ra and the Solar Myth Arkestra (many of the same players) at the University of Michigan’s Eclipse Jazz Festival in 1978. The horn players made the most innovative entrance I’ve yet witnessed at any show, as they strode in, stepping their way to the stage on the arm rests of chairs, not conventionally down the aisles, as most would do. To the strain of Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp,” they had the crowd immediately mesmerized only to be followed with Sun Ra, in full radiant dress, elevated to the stage as the dancers and musicians echoed “The Sun Is Rising.” The unit proceeded to play everything from swing to be-bop to avant-garde to their trademark space tunes over the course of two and half hours. Until now, none of their recorded material even comes close to that visual and aural memory. These two projects are revelatory.

Some folks may not be aware of this bizarre, talented musician. Herman “Sonny” Blount’s body was born on May 22, 1914, in Birmingham, Alabama, his spirit originated on Saturn a few years later. Around the age of twenty-two, Blount had a transformative experience during a deep religious meditation: “My whole body changed into something else. And I went up… I wasn’t in human form. I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn. They teleported me and I was down on stage with them. I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.” Blount emerged from this encounter determined to fulfill their prophecy. Rechristening himself Le Sony’r Ra, he began in the early ‘50s on a four decades quest to write and play ever-more adventurous music, much of it space related in both theme and literally. He was always “out there.” Blending elements of bebop, modal jazz, free improvisation and unclassifiable, otherworldly sounds, with over 100 recordings, Sun Ra built one of the most challenging and innovative recorded catalogs in music history. His live shows, like the aforementioned, were legendary even though he and his band(s) never became widely known.

Modern Harmonic is bringing us these previously unreleased treasures for Record Day, November 25th, in both vinyl and CD formats. The first is a double/CD triple vinyl of a concert recorded at the Inter-Media Arts Center in New York, April 20, 1991, just two years before Ra’s “earthly departure.” His keyboard work here is as vibrant as ever and the performance features both instrumental and vocal works. The recording quality is absolutely stellar (courtesy of radio station WNYC), much better than most of Ra’s. You’ll hear long-time members: vocalists June Tyson and T.C. Carney, saxophonist Marshall Allen, trumpeter Michael Ray, multi-instrumentalist James Jacson, the ever venerable saxophonist John Gilmore and others in this 18-piece ensemble. While they handle a couple of standards in their own unique way, (Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Cocktails for Two”) they conclude with this sequence: “Planet Earth Day,” Space Loneliness”,and “We Travel the Spaceways.” The liner notes from noted jazz historian Howard Mandel make for “must reading,” and the intricately designed artwork comes from acclaimed album art icon, Jim Flora.

The single 75 minute disc (two vinyl albums) of vocal tracks is the first ever collection of Arkestra vocal tracks, spanning the period from 1960 – 1985. Ra was not well known for vocals, and never recorded a full album of vocals. Yet, he proves to be a strong composer. As the title suggests, the material reflects Ra’s obsession with all things extraterrestrial. Ra’s enduring theme song, “Space Is the Place,” is featured here alongside other chanting, rather hypnotic tunes like “Interplanetary No. 1.” Others are swing tunes or ballads like “Round Midnight.” Perhaps the most interesting of which is “Nuclear War,” a rap tune of sorts with these lyrics for example, “Burnt trees, burnt grass, burnt hair, and burnt ass” concluding with “cause you’re always sittin’ on your ass, ass ass!” The extensive liner notes from Charles Blass of Sun Radio provide exquisite details, with lyrics, place and time of performance and identification of specific vocalists by track. June Tyson, for one, is simply stunning.

Go ahead. Take these trips to some new worlds you’ve probably never discovered. You’ll enjoy every minute of them.

-Jim Hynes

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