Sun Ra ‘Of Abstract Dreams’ LP (Strut) 5/5

Record Store Day will soon be upon us and to coincide with this, indie label Strut have over the last few years been quietly but carefully adding to the canon of work by one of jazz’s most intriguing and mystifying figures, namely Sun Ra. Their previous Sun Ra re-issues have been indispensable affairs, with a double LP of piano solo and trio work (including handily a no frills CD to accompany – other labels please take note. Listeners do enjoy listening to their favourite music in different formats so why not indulge them). This latest issue, however, is slightly different in its source of origin, and as such offers a whole new perspective on the Ra’s work. Thanks to the sterling efforts and aural detective work of Michael D. Anderson, hitherto unheard of master tapes of a pared down formation of the Arkestra as a septet have now been made available to a wider audience for the very first time and these emanate from a campus radio station at the University of Philadelphia, WXFN. Given that these master tapes were retrieved minus any date details, we can only surmise that the single recording session took place sometime between 1974 and 1976. Sadly, due to a change in management at the radio station in the 1990’s, all other master tapes, not only of Sun Ra, but equally of a whole range of other musicians, were discarded and have been lost forever. Which makes the acquisition of these two sides all the more important.

Three key questions need to be asked: (i) Where does this issue fit into the bigger picture of Sun Ra recordings and what is the historical significance? (ii) How did this recording actually come about? (iii) What new do we learn from the music itself?

The first question is, perhaps, the easiest to answer. What is incontestable is that the period 1972-1980 witnessed a prolific period of recording activity by Sun Ra and one in which he and the band themselves were in a particularly rich vein of form. This is illustrated by the release of some of Ra’s strongest, yet equally more accessible albums including ‘Astro Black’ (newly re-issued), ‘Discipline 27-II’ (a previous Strut Record Store Day re-issue and strongly recommended for neophyte and collector alike), through to the latter half of the decade and the superlative ‘Lanquidity’, dating from 1978. Moreover, Sun Ra recorded in an ever-increasing variety of formats from piano solo, to piano trio and with full orchestra sometimes including more than one drummer, instrumentalists doubling up on percussion and the use of vocalists of whom June Tyson was a regular participant. The Arkestra branched out into film soundtrack music (‘Space Is The Place’) and released occasional 45’s (the subject of another Strut re-issue available in CD and separate vinyl formats).

In relation to the second question,.Sun Ra was constantly searching for outlets and opportunities in which to record the band’s music and the university radio station on the University of Philadelphia campus turned out to be an ideal setting. It was relatively inexpensive to book and Sun Ra encountered at once a friendly and supportive concert entrepreneur who was in overall charge, Geno Barnhart, the founder of the Empty Foxhole collective that existed between 1969 and 1982. Thus Barnhart was able to facilitate both studio sessions and live performances at the concert venue. None of the latter appear to be available for posterity, but this single studio session is the sole remaining example of Sun Ra and the Arkestra’s presence during this period.

How does the music shape up? Several key members of the band are present, notably Marshall Allen who operates on both flute and alto saxophone, as well as John Gilmore on tenor saxophone. However, no bassist is present whatsoever which raises a further question of whether this was in fact a deliberate decision on the part of Sun Ra to diversify, or merely a practical necessity of adapting to the absence of a given musician. Irrespective, the combination of mono recording and a distinctly dry sound (re-mastered and perfectly acceptable) lend an unusual quality to the Arkestra ambience, though this writer has no issues at all with the overall quality.

Side A commences with a reprise of a piece, ‘Island in the sun’, that was previously included on the Saturn album, ‘The Invisible Shield’, and which, in sound at least, is a close cousin to, ‘Spontaneous Simplicity’. The number is classic Ra terrain in combining a swing-like groove with modal form and the straightforward theme is played on flute by Allen. For a complete contrast in mood, ‘New dawn’, is an altogether darker and more brooding beast of a tune, which starts off with a musical conversation between Sun Ra on piano and Marshall Allen, before a more rhythmic groove takes over, propelled by the searching soloing of Gilmore, while Sun Ra himself briefly solos.

Allying the Arkestra sound with the blues is where the second side focuses the listener’s attention on the curiously titled piece, ‘I’m gonna unmask the Batman’, which was co-written by Lacy Gibson and Alton Abraham, the latter a business partner in Saturn records. Sun Ra jazz imbued with Chicago blues has an additional layer cemented by the lead vocals of James Jacson who has just the faintest hint of Louis Armstrong mixed with the R & B influences of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The music veers off into freer form when Gilmore takes up an impassioned solo. The session concludes with, ‘I’ll Wait For You’, that intricately combines poetry and music, with a recital by both Sun Ra himself and Jacson, and this proved to be a regular concert favourite that long-time Arkestra vocalist June Tyson would perform.

An inner sleeve booklet accompanies the LP and contains detailed notes written by author Paul Griffiths who is best known for his groundbreaking book on new music of the twentieth century and Sun Ra surely deserves to be placed among the pantheon of musicians with something new to say.

Tim Stenhouse