Sun Ra = 4 CDs: Reflections in Blue; Hours After; Mayan Temples, A Tribute to Stuff Smith (The Complete Remastered Recordings) – Black Saint/Soul Note/Cam Jazz BXS 1031 (11/11/14) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***:
(Sun Ra, Randall Murray, Tyrone Hill, Pat Patrick, Marshall Allen, Danny Ray Thompson, John Gilmore, Leroy Taylor, James Jackson, Ronald Wilon, Carl LeBlanc, Tyler Mitchell, Thomas Hunter, Earl “Buster” Smith, Ahmed Abdullah, Noe Scott, June Tyson, Jothan Callins, Clifford Barbaro, Ron McBee, Jorge Silver, Elson Nascimento, John Ore, Billy Bang, Andrew Cyrille)
Oh boy, this is not your typical jazz reissue collection. There was nobody in jazz quite like Sun Ra. He was a prolific (though he never had mainstream success) jazz performer, composer, bandleader, synth player, poet and philosopher who was born in Birmingham, AL, but claimed he had always had the birth name of Sun Ra and was not of this Earth but from Saturn. He said he had a visionary experience as a college student in 1936 in which he traveled to Saturn and (at least a decade before the big public interest in flying saucers); this led to the start of his name and personal mythology. He led his various “Arkestras” from the mid-‘50s to his death in 1993, which often included a group of singers and dancers. They usually wore sci-fi or Egyptian-themed costumes. I was lucky enough to see him perform once in the early ‘90s at the planaterium in San Francisco, with dancers coming down the aisles swinging the plastic hoses which were popular in the ‘60s, which each produced a different tone.
Sun Ra was full of cosmic philosophies and poetry about awareness, space travel and peace. His music changed constantly, sometimes within a piece, and included keyboard solos, big band sounds (with over 30 musicians), ragtime, swing, bebop, electronic sounds, and wild free jazz which sometimes made your hair stand on end. (He thought avant-garde musicians usually took themselves far too seriously. Ha!) He was one of the first musicians to use a lot of electronic keyboards. His poetry was somewhat child-like and his singers not among the best. But his group has gone on performing all over the world since his death.
These four albums were recorded in Italy in the later 1980s and early 1990s. Some of many top jazz men are heard on the various albums, including Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, Andrew Cyrille, and Pat Patrick. Each sleeve in the boxed set has the original album artwork. Reflections in Blue has a great cover shot of Sun Ra and is musically mostly in the bebop area. They even do Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays.” The original notes are almost impossible to read as reduced to five inches across on the back of the sleeve. Same on the second album.
Hours After is a mis-mash of all sort of classic jazz influences, including Fats Waller and Ellington, plus some very atonal free jazz freakouts. The five tracks are also longer. Mayan Temples gets into another exotic place on the earth (although ancient Egypt seemed to be Sun Ra’s favorite, and the track here, “Sunset on the Night on the River Nile,” seems to get back to it). It also has two tracks on “The Stargazers,” which occasional lyrics were not understandable but had something to do with outer space stuff. There is also a “Stardust from Tomorrow” track.
I was especially excited about hearing the fourth CD, which is a Tribute to Stuff Smith featuring the avant-garde jazz violinist Billy Bang in a quartet setup with Sun Ra and a rhythm section. I knew it would be a more avant version of that great hot violinist’s original hits, and it was, but unfortunately – like most poor jazz vocalists – Bang is slightly flat on nearly everything. Perhaps some listeners are not as sensitive to that as I am, but it puts me off every time. (When the first audiophile-quality turntables came out we had to convince some designers it was worthwhile to reduce the flutter and wow even further.) And if you didn’t dig the Arkestra’s version of “Yesterdays,” here it is again in a different setting.
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