Sun Ra and his Solar-Myth Arkestra

The Solar-Myth Approach Vol. 1 & 2
Corbett vs Dempsey CD 070

Mercurial and obtuse, this two-CD set restores to circulation – but with superior audio – the music put out on two BYG LPs in the early 1970s by composer-keyboardist-bandleader Sun Ra and his Arkestrra. Without affecting the high quality of the music though, like many – most? – Ra sessions the personnel on these 15 tracks and the background of the recordings are murky. A pastiche of tunes likely recorded in the mid-1960s in Chicago and New York, Arkestra membership varies from tracks to track. Is the program designed to highlight Ra’s arrangements of experimental sounds? Is it way to demonstrate the Arkestra’s ability to bring a swing underpinning to any situation? Or is it an exemplary showcase of Ra’s sui generis manipulation of early electronic instruments. The answer, depending on which of the tracks is the focus is a mixture of all three. That’s the reason that the Arkestra has over the years been constantly playing improvised music with a sensibility involving perpetual surprises.

Arkestra standards like the vocalized “Satellites are Spinning” and “Outer Spaceways Inc” are here, but in unique versions. The first for instance mixes June Tyson’s vocals with door-stopper-like percussion reverberations and a keyboard excursion that seems to take its cue from courtly ballads, while the brief chant is sung over swing piano chording. Meanwhile thick bass vamps from Ronnie Boykins introduce “Ancient Ethiopia” where flute arabesques and horn honks propel the theme through a mambo beat.

Crucially though, the exposition of “Pyramids”, another variant of courtly lyrics is followed by “Interpretation” and “Strange Worlds”, which rocket from 14th Century rustic to 20th Century intergalactic motifs. With expressive vibrations from Ra’s plugged-in keyboards, shaking percussion tropes and prepared space harp-like glissandi, the subsequent sounds are as violent as they are vibrant. “Strange Worlds” ups the pitch with flutter-tongued jabs from one trumpeter mixed with electric piano comping and irregular smears from John Gilmore’s tenor saxophone. The discordant resolution of the track involves textural constraints slowly disintegrating as Tyson’s voice is heard distantly in the background. More particular to the program are those times when Art Jenkins so-called space voice is heard. Orating with verbal pantomime on a track such as “Realm of Lightning” his retching gurgles and ringing yodels on this and other tracks carve out a specific role moving the pitch upwards with accelerating tension and moving sequences towards harmony, especially where every musician appears to be whumping an idiophone to produce kettle drum sonority, wood block clacks and hand drum reverberations.

Still what finally elevates The Solar-Myth Approach is how Ra and by the band resolve the contradiction between maintaining a swing groove and stretching programmed extrusions from the Moog synthesizer, organ and Clavinet into musical not experimental currents. With a book that went back to the mid-1950s, and players who had been part of the Arkestra on-and-off since that time. The swing part is aptly handled. Should Ra call on his inner Albert Ammons or Earl Hines and sound out barrelhouse or sophisticate cabaret chording, section members are quick to pick up the tone. Tracks like “The Utter Nots” confirm this, while also injecting Energy Music tropes into the miasmatic mix with flutter tongued brassy honks, low-pitched arco bass scrubs, ruffs and paradiddles from the massed percussion and spiky and shattering reed variations, Polyphones not pandemonium is emphasized though. No matter how jagged the responses they harmonize nicely with piano vamps.

Programming for slides, vibrations and pumps that are staccato and prestissimo, Ra’s keyboard command takes the form of connective continuum and programmed echoes and buzzes. Electric patterns move forward alongside pseudo-Bebop piccolo peeps on “Adventures of ‘Bugs’ Hunter” for instance with the same acumen in which Ra probes the outer limits of dissonant timbres, with both high-pitched or bottom-feeding synthesis elsewhere. In fact the only misstep seems to be the inclusion of “Scene 1 Take 1 (True Speed Version)” as the final tracks, since the cranked tempos and meandering vibrations go on at too great length. Earlier unaccompanied Ra keyboard showpieces are most defining. Definitive too is the program on The Solar-Myth Approach Vol. 1 & 2. As a definition of the Arkesatra’s work at that time and place it confirms the need for its continued availability.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Volume 1: 1. Spectrum 2. Realm of Lightning 3. Satellites are Spinning 4. Legend 5. Seen III Took 4 6. They’ll Come Back 7. Adventures of “Bugs” Hunter Volume 2: 1. The Utter Nots 2. Outer Spaceways Inc 3. Scene 1 Take 1 (Album Version) 4. Pyramids 5. Interpretation 6. Ancient Ethiopia 7. Strange Worlds 8. Scene 1 Take 1 (True Speed Version)

Personnel: Kwame Hadi, Wayne Harris, Jothan Callins (trumpet); Akh Tal Ebah (trumpet, Space Dimension mellophone); Ali Hassan, Charles Stephens (trombone); Bernard Pettaway (bass trombone); Marshall Allen (alto saxophone, flute, oboe, piccolo, Strange Strings, percussion); Danny Ray Thompson (alto saxophone, baritone saxophone, flute); Danny Davis (also saxophone, alto clarinet, flute, percussion); John Gilmore (tenor saxophone, Strange Strings, vocals, percussion); Pat Patrick (baritone saxophone, flute, Strange Strings, percussion); Robert Cummings (bass clarinet, percussion); James Jacson (oboe, bassoon, flute, Infinity Drum); Sun Ra (piano, Moog synthesizer, organ, Clavinet, Strange Strings, percussion); Ronnie Boykins- (bass, viola, dutar); Clifford Jarvis, Lex Humphries (drums, percussion); Tommy “Bugs” Hunter (drums, percussion, reverb); Nimrod Hunt (hand drums, Strange Strings); June Tyson (vocals); Art Jenkins (space voice)