Sun Ra and his Arkestra – In the Orbit of Ra
(Strut/Art Yard STRUT109LP. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)
It’s a hundred years since Sun Ra — née Herman Poole ‘Sonny’ Blount — arrived on our planet (although Sun Ra never really admitted to being of this Earth). And to celebrate his centenary, the Art Yard and Strut labels have collaborated to produce this stonking compilation, a whistle-stop tour through the universe of Ra. Available as a double CD, it is also being thoughtfully offered on vinyl, as a double LP pressed in Germany, complete with copies of the CDs thrown in for good measure.
This compilation is a painstaking labour of love, put together by the current leader of the Arkestra, Marshall Allen, working with Peter Dennett of Art Yard, a label which has been responsible for numerous outstanding Sun Ra reissues over the years. In the Orbit of Ra features a treasure store of Ra rarities — drawing on previously unreleased and extended masters which haven’t appeared before on either CD or vinyl.
Not surprisingly, Marshall Allen has the inside track on all things Sun Ra and as a result of his decades of collaboration with the man (or alien) himself, he has assembled a remarkably cogent and coherent collection unlike any previous compilation of the Arkestra’s music. Most of the tracks cluster around the late 1950s and early 60s — certainly a golden age for the Arkestra — but also features a handful of tunes from the late 1960s and early 70s, an equally fertile period.
The collection kicks off with Somewhere in Space, a slow interstellar march punctuated by John L. Hardy’s drum and cymbals, which begins with the saxes and Phil Cohran’s cornet in lockstep before John Gilmore’s lyrical tenor and Marshall Allen’s precise flute rise above the ensemble playing, like smoke signals in alien skies. The elegiac mood yields to the irresistible rhythmic pulsing of Lady With Golden Stockings featuring Sun Ra himself on Wurlitzer electric piano, supported by haunted house saxophones and cowbell percussion. The punchy and compelling Somebody Else’s World again showcases Ra’s electronic keyboards (this time playing ‘intergalactic organ’) laying down tapestries of sound as background to June Tyson’s piercing vocals.
Anyone who thinks Sun Ra’s music might be unapproachable and bristling with avant-garde mannerisms should have a listen to Spontaneous Simplicity (a CD-only track) with the gorgeous melodic lyricism of its flute and the fine lace filigree of Sun Ra’s piano. Or new listeners could start with the equally accessible, although in an utterly different way, Plutonian Nights which features the fat baritone sax of Pat Patrick and is as funky and infectiously swinging as you could ask, with sinuous figures being carved out in smoky nightclub air, somewhere in a pressure dome on everybody’s favourite dwarf planet. Robert Barry’s drums provide a dense background and then drop back to minimalist timekeeping while Ronnie Boykins’s bass provides a coolly groovy, angular commentary.
On Island in the Sun Marshall Allen’s flute is doubled with the alto clarinet of Danny Davis, set against the tantalising fragments of Sun Ra’s piano and sparse percussion from John Gilmore and Pat Patrick, taking a rest from their reeds. It is Ben Henderson who is the bass hero here, plucking and strumming simple strains as a backdrop for the flute and clarinet. Given the title, the piece has an appropriately calypso feel, but with a cosmic Arkestra slant.
The vinyl version of this album, mastered and cut by Peter Beckmann, has an impressive deep-space acoustic and a three dimensional quality which puts digital versions in the shade. And it’s not just the music which is exemplary here. The gatefold sleeve that houses these records is a gorgeous package, lavishly illustrated with rare and unpublished by photos by the great Val Wilmer and featuring an in-depth interview with Marshall Allen conducted by Peter Dennett.
In the Orbit of Ra is a sumptuous release, a marvellous starting point for new listeners and a box of delights for old fans. And it has a serious claim to being the finest Sun Ra compilation yet released.