Sun Ra and His Arkestra – To Those of Earth… and Other Worlds
(Strut/Art Yard SRUT125LP. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)
To give it its proper designation, this is Gilles Peterson Presents Sun Ra and His Arkestra, which is quite a canny idea for a project. Because, like Duke Ellington or Frank Zappa, Sun Ra has a dauntingly vast oeuvre (well over 100 albums; and that isn’t taking into account the bootlegs) and if someone is keen to explore Ra’s music, yet doesn’t know where to begin, then a curated experience by one of Britain’s top DJs is an excellent starting point. He explains some of his choices on video HERE. (The new compilation follows on last year’s release In the Orbit of Ra, also on the Strut label, which saw long time Arkestra luminary Marshall Allen providing his own doorway into the massive Ra back catalogue.)
This is an intergalactic tour of Ra’s music (musics, actually, plural) from his early doo-wop, in the shape of the lovely, lolloping Dreaming performed by The Cosmic Rays (Calvin Barron, Matt Swift and Lonnie Tolbert), to angular, ethnic electronica such as The World Of Africa (Sun Ra on Hohner Clarinet and ‘sun harp’). And, perhaps surprisingly, it passes through the richly romantic on the way — Black Sky and Blue Moon is a mesmerising ballad with virile science fiction vocals (the descendants of the doo-wop). Featuring The Cosmic Rays again, the song is poised between primitive simplicity and the avant-garde, with its delicate, exploratory flute (Marshall Allen), challenged and banished by the powerful background blast of the baritone sax by Pat Patrick, voices rising in celebration to the sky and moon of the title and fading to flute and drums (the latter probably played by Robert Barry). Utterly beautiful.
India, on the other hand, is typical — and classic — Ra with its mystery percussion and sensual, snaking muted trumpet (Art Hoyle), clashing starburst cymbals (Jim Herndon), shimmering bells and casually elegant electric piano by Su Ra — who also plays space gong. Of course. Sun Ra’s keyboards (Mini-Moog synth and Rocksichord) offer a very different experience on Love In Outer Space, providing a springy cartoon trampoline for the soft innocence of the vocals by David Henderson. Spontaneous Simplicity (Stereo Version) is memorable for its insistent, boogying rhythmic percussion (the drums are by William Cochran, with just about every other member of the band contributing to percussion) and Ra’s judicious, jauntily terse piano comments à la Basie.
This is a splendid package, a hefty gatefold album, nicely designed and featuring extensive and fascinating liner notes, including an in-depth history of Ra by Robert L. Campbell, extracted from the forthcoming Art Yard reprint of the rare and sought after book Sun Ra: the Omniverse by Hartmut Geerken. There’s also a great gallery of Sun Ra album covers and some lovely black and white photographs of the Arkestra members by Val Wilmer. In addition, the origin of every track in the collection is carefully documented. Sadly, for reasons of space (ironic in a Sun Ra context), there’s no detailed information on who plays what on which track. The booklet for the double CD version, however, contains all that one could ask in that area, and it can, in a pinch, be downloaded.
In any event this a great compilation, though you’ll miss the ringing telephone in the background on Adventure-Equation — it’s only on the CDs. But the double LP version will exert a considerable appeal to all vinyl enthusiasts. It has a strong, open, punchy sound and is an admirably clean transfer. And, to my ears, it has the edge on In the Orbit of Ra in audiophile, if not musical, terms. What’s more, the two CDs (though not the booklet) are included as a bonus with this doubly vinyl package; so it’s hard to find a reason not to buy it. An ideal starting point to explore the Universe According to Sun Ra.