Sun Ra - piano, organ, synthesizer; Marshall Allen - alto saxophone, flute; Danny Davis - alto saxophone, flute, clarinet; Larry Northington - alto saxophone; John Gilmore - tenor saxophone; Danny Ray Thompson - baritone saxophone, flute; Pat Patrick - baritone saxophone; Elmo Omoe - bass clarinet; James Jackson - bassoon, percussion; Akh Tal Ebah - trumpet, percussion; Kwame Hadi - trumpet; Dick Griffin - trombone; Charles Stephens - trombone; Hakim Jami - tuba; Alzo Wright - cello; Ronnie Boykins - bass; Shahib Odun - congas; Aralamon Hazoume - balafon; Harry Richards - percussion; Lex Humphries - drums; Aye Aton - drums; June Tyson - vocals; Cheryl Banks - vocals; Judith Holton - vocals; Ruth Wright - vocals
One of the most enigmatic personas in jazz history ("You can call me Mr. Ra or you can call me Mystery"), the iconic Sun Ra was an avant garde pioneer and innovative bandleader whose sense of onstage theatricality - he embraced the ancient trappings of Egypt while also looking into science fiction and outer space for his inspirations -- influenced everyone from the Art Ensemble of Chicago to Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention to Parliament-Funkadelic. A prolific composer and accomplished pianist who often revealed his stride piano roots in the course of his sprawling concerts, Ra was also one of the first jazz musicians to incorporate electronic instruments into his repertoire. At the time of this Carnegie Hall concert, as part of the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival, Ra presided over a 24-piece ensemble, including longstanding Arkestra members John Gilmore on tenor sax, Marshall Allen on alto sax and June Tyson on vocals, for what was easily the most dissonant and possibly most disturbing (to straight ahead jazz lovers) set of music in the history of the Newport Jazz Festival.
Following a percussive free jazz fanfare, in which the great trombonist Dick Griffin joins the fray with some inspired blasts of his own, the whole band drops out as June Tyson sings the "Astro Black" against a sparse bass pulse from Ronnie Boykins. A furious cacophony follows, stirred up by bandleader Ra, who could change the course of the band with the wave of a hand. Marshall Allen leads the way on this sonic barrage with his passionate playing in the altissimo range of his horn. Trombonist Griffin follows with a bold solo over the chugging groove that sounds like a herd of charging elephants, as Ra summons echo-laden 'space sounds' from his synthesizer. This long and winding piece builds to a rare piano showcase by Ra, ranging from tender and lyrical to thunderous and strictly avant garde. Boykins is also featured on a virtuosic, unaccompanied bowed bass solo here before trumpeter Kwame Hadi enters with some forceful blasts from his horn. Baritone saxophonist Pat Patrick blows some furious overtones to bring this opening onslaught to a ferocious conclusion.
Following Patrick's intense showcase on the bari, Ra erupts for some of the most extreme synthesizer wailing imaginable. Drummer Lex Humphries also contributes an unaccompanied solo on this extended, untitled improvisation. Baritone saxophonist Charles Stephens and trombonist Griffin (featuring his command of multiphonics on his horn) also take extended improvisations on this freewheeling jam. Ra then changes the course of this dissonant cacophony with four notes from his organ, signaling the Arkestra theme, "Space is the Place," which Tyson carries on vocals. Tenor titan Gilmore adds a ferocious solo at the tag of this joyful sing-along number. From there, the ensemble segues to another Ra set piece, "Enlightenment," which Tyson sings in call-and-response fashion with backing vocalists Cheryl Banks, Judith Holton and Ruth Wright and several members of the Arkestra. ("Hear me invitation. We do invite you to be of our space world"). This catchy vocal refrain leads into a forceful display of overblowing by tenorist Gilmore before segueing to another familiar Ra theme, "Love in Outer Space," which has the maestro playing organ over a churning, African flavored 12/8 percussion groove. Patrick again displays blowtorch intensity on his unaccompanied baritone sax. Ra's ostinato on the bass keys of his synth then trigger a transition into "Silhouettes of the Shadow World," another freewheeling cacophonous journey that features Ra with another otherwordly eruption on his synthesizer along with explosive solos from baritone saxophonist Pat Patrick, alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, tuba ace Hakim Jami, trumpeter Akh Tal Ebah and bass clarinetist Elmo Omoe. Drummers Lex Humphries and Aye Aton then unite alongside the whole percussion section for an incredible polyrhythmic barrage entitled "Watusa, Egyptian March."
This remarkable Carnegie Hall concert concludes with another Ra anthem, "Discipline 27-II," which features the enigmatic leader engaging in cryptic spoken word call-and-response with Tyson, claiming that he was not from Earth but from Saturn: "What planet is this?/I'm just visiting here myself/Just a touch of the myth/Walking around in your reality/What kind of reality is this?/This is not my planet. Sorry that it's yours/What planet is this?" Showman, charlatan or truly a brother from another planet, Sun Ra was indisputably an innovator, an entertainer of the highest order, and a celestially-inspired jazz master who traveled the space ways.
Born on May 22, 1914, in Birmingham, Alabama as Herman Poole "Sonny" Blount, he legally changed his name into Le Sony'r Ra on October 20, 1952. He led his own band for the first time in 1934 in Birmingham and after World War II began working in Chicago with blues singer Wynonie Harris and later as a pianist/arranger with Fletcher Henderson. In 1948, he worked briefly in a trio with sax great Coleman Hawkins and Swing era violinist Stuff Smith. In 1952, he formed his Space Trio with drummer Tommy Hunter and saxophonist Pat Patrick and the following year formed his first big band, which he dubbed the Arkestra. They started out playing advanced bebop before gradually moving into the avant garde. Ra moved to New York in 1961 with John Gilmore, Marshall Allen and Ronnie Boykins and by 1966 he had secured a residency for his newly formed orchestra at Slug's Saloon. In 1968, he relocated his entire group to Germantown section of Philadelphia, where he continued to hone his bandstand theatrics and band leading skills while continuing to embrace the avant garde and occasional forays into Fletcher Henderson's book. A performance at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival and appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine earlier that year led to a newfound appreciation of the Sun Ra Arkestra among the burgeoning hippie market. In 1971, Ra was artist-in-residence at University of California, Berkeley, teaching a course called, "The Black Man In the Cosmos." On May 20, 1978, Sun Ra and the Arkestra appeared on Saturday Night Live. By 1979, they began an extended residency at the Squat Theater on 23rd Street in Manhattan. The Arkestra continued touring and recording through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Even after a stroke in 1990, Ra kept composing, performing, and leading the Arkestra in concert. He died on May 30, 1993, in his hometown of Birmingham. Ra's Arkestra recorded dozens of albums on his Saturn label, many of which were reissued in the late 1990s on the Evidence label. The Arkestra continues to tour today under the leadership of alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, who turned 88 this year. (Bill Milkowski)