Traveling The Spaceways
Planet Arts Recordings 100324

Hagiography constantly becomes more prevalent in jazz as the number of venerated figures grows and their time of prominence recedes. Almost from its first recordings, the music featured sessions idolizing past heroes, but over the past 20 years the practice has almost kept pace with Hollywood biopics.

How then can you distinguish between a meaningful tribute, which includes this CD, and slapdash homage? Well, for a start, it helps if the protagonist has some real association with the honored figure, as trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah did, being part of various Sun Ra Arkestras over a 20 year period. More generically the venerator should offers more than a replay of the honoree’s sounds, bringing something unique and original to the project. Abdullah has done that as well. He and tenor saxophonist Salim Washington have created new arrangements of familiar and obscure Ra material and have appended to it has stronger singers plus dramatic recitations by poet Louis Reyes Rivera

There’s a continuum here as well. Besides Abdullah, violinist Billy Bang, trombonist Craig Harris, and bassist Radu Oluwu Ben Judah all worked for Ra at one point. Plus baritone saxophonist Alex Harding, the trumpeter’s associate in the Nam quartet, has been a member of the post-Ra Arkestra. The other participants are second trumpeter Owuor Arunga, guitarist Masujaa, drummer Cody Moffett, Miles Griffith on vocals and Monique Ngozi Nri contributing vocals and poetry.

To get an idea of what can be done, listen to the band’s recreation of “Enlightenment”, for many years an Arkestra standard. After Arunga, a student of Abdullah’s at Manhattan’s New School, limns the melody with molasses-like languorousness, Harding’s deep-pitched ostinato and finger picking guitar from Masujaa introduce the familiar animated theme. Bang’s subsequent solo makes it sound as if he’s playing call and response with different parts of his fiddle, as the mixed vocalization from Abdullah, Griffith and Ngozi Nri sounds less like Ra’s Ethnic Space Voices and more like The Platters. An interlude of apocalyptic-oriented poetry from Reyes Rivera modifies the Ra-penned lyrics until ukulele-high pitched guitar and baritone sax lows recapitulate the theme.

Other achievements include “Love in Outerspace” and “Dancing Shadows. The first gives the tune an R&B feel with a shuffle drum beat and solid bass patterns and whose highlights are an emotionally overblown sax solo from Washington plus chromatic fills from Abdullah, An unrecorded, little-played Ra composition, the second tune sounds like space-age Fletcher Henderson dance music mixed with Freebop and other influences. As Harding’s stentorian phrases provide the underpinnings, Harris unveils gravelly plunger work, and Moffett rattles his brushes and sticks as if he was powering a Basie small group, Bang’s solo appears to come from an earlier time when country hoe-downs met backwoods blues. Ending with call-and-response between the horns, the piece is cut off with a brass whinny.

The CD’s standout is Abdullah and Washington rearrangement of “21st Century” as a three-section suite. Throughout a total of 13¼ minutes, different soloists move forward. These include Bang at his most characteristic, sounding glissandi cat gut shrieks and lively double-stopped slides down the scale; boppish trumpet and baritone saxophone vocings that reference the Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams combo more than Ra; and multiphonic screams from Washington’s horn, superseded by what could a brass band fanfare. Vocally, Griffin mixes song and commentary à la Leon Thomas; and Reyes Rivera contributes more poetics.

Not everything works however. Ngozi Nri, for one, is a better singer than a poet, and “East of Uz”, another unknown Ra line, seems to mix simplistic poetics from Reyes Rivera with awfully conventional mainstream charts. Abdullah’s andante showcase could have come from bopper Kenny Dorham rather than any enlightened Ra soloist, and it isn’t helped by Moffett’s hesitant rattling and stomping drumming.

Adding things up however, the plus usually overcome the minuses in this salute to the musician who had a massive influence on the trumpet’s life. “Celebrating our ancestors is what makes us whole”, he has written, and TRAVELING THE SPACEWAYS is an appropriate tribute.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. We Traveling the Spaceways 2. 21st Century Part 1 3. 21st Century Part 2 4. 21st Century Part 3 5. Dancing Shadows 6. Love in Outerspace 7. Enlightenment 8. East of Uz 9. New Horizons 10. They Plan

Personnel: Ahmed Abdullah (trumpet and vocals); Owuor Arunga (trumpet); Craig Harris (trombone); Salim Washington (tenor saxophone); Alex Harding (baritone saxophone); Billy Bang (violin); Masujaa (guitar); Radu Oluwu Ben Judah (bass); Cody Moffett (drums); Monique Ngozi Nri (vocals and poetry); Miles Griffith (vocals); Louis Reyes Rivera (poetry)