The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums: Cymbals / Crystal Spears
Pathways to Unknown Worlds / Friendly Love
When Angels Speak of Love

[Evidence Music,]

Spaceship Lullaby

[Atavistic / Unheard Music Series,]

Sun Ra's legacy was only really starting to unravel after he departed planet Earth in 1993. All of a sudden, dozens of labels were quick to issue material that had been dormant in the vaults for decades. Even MPS got in on the act with the issue of a couple of German performances from the 70's in the form of "Black Myth / Out in Space". Other labels took more care and were consistent in releasing only the best, hard-to-find material die-hard Ra fans wanted and needed to have in their collections without selling their house to do so in the process. Evidence issued 19 albums [many of these contain two original LPs], along with an essential "The Singles" set, and a greatest hits disc [now, that's a weird turn of events for the Sun Ra catalogue!] "Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel". Each re-issue was undertaken with intricate love and care, from reproducing original cover art [and often times finding lost art], to insightful liner notes, biographical information and music re-mastering. The guys at Evidence's Conshohocken, PA offices really know Ra from inside and out. I'll admit, I sat on the latest batch of Ra re-issues for some time now, though this was done on purpose. I needed the music to sink in, to truly infiltrate my insides and to become one whole with my self.
During the early 70's Arkestra struck a deal with Impulse!, which was a first big-record deal for the band. In fact, this was a short-lived deal as only a few records were actually released, before Impulse! pulled the plug on the band. Recorded in 1973, "Cymbals / Crystal Spears" were two records that were shelved for nearly three decades. This is their first official release as such. "Cymbals" sees Sun Ra in a small band ensemble. Mostly playing his organ, Ra leads the band into an introspective set, which turns out to be rather sad, though never dreary. What we have in effect is some underplayed, though brilliantly constructed Ra music. John Gilmore plays a few killer tenor solos on "Thoughts under a Dark Blue Light", which are even more effective due to the small band in place. Music moves along at a snail's pace. It's so slow, some may tempt to stick a label of lounge music - though that really wouldn't be fair. [Sun Ra was far from lounge music - he dealt in compositions.] There are no chants or other Sun Ra trademarks that may take this music from being exactly what it was meant to do - to soothe your weary traveling mind.
For "Crystal Spears", Ra expanded Arkestra somewhat. The direction had changed in some ways as well. Right from the get-go, on the title track, Ra digs into his Mini-Moog to deliver a killer outer space solo. This really feels more like a real Arkestra record. Full of killer solos - Akh Tal Ebah and Kwame Hadi on trumpets, Marshall Allen on alto and oboe and John Gilmore on tenors. All of these solos are surrounded with tons and tons of percussion - congas [Atakatune and Odun], various percussion from Eugene Brennan, Clifford Jarvis and Danny Ray Thompson along with a few other part-time percussionists. Music is rich in style, though once again, pacing is purposefully kept from slow to mid tempo. The most daring track is the closing 20 minute epic "Sunrise in the Western Sky". Recalling "Atlantis", the piece meanders through a dozen changes, delicate percussive marks, lovely wind solos purposefully relegated to the background. Both albums are essential, though mid-speed blast- offs from Arkestra.
"Pathways to Unknown Worlds" was also recorded in NYC in 1973. Not only that, but it was actually issued by the people at Impulse! Sadly, the title track disappoints somewhat. Maybe it's because I was expecting a full explosion to occur somewhere inside the 12 minute piece, that I was let down with its meandering quality. The band simply plays off-kilter lines and sections that don't really go places. While there is a noisy solo near the end [one that lasts a mere few seconds, in fact], it's the Arkestra's unwillingness to go places that I found most disappointing. Further, on "Extension Out", Danny Davis plays a blasting alto solo, while Kwame Hadi plays a soaring trumpet groove. This is really Arkestra at its freest and at times, its loudest.
Impulse! ordered "Friendly Love" though never in fact released it. Once again, Ra is in full control on his Mini-Moog. As he swings back and forth between extremes, the Arkestra plays full, heady, gripping music all around him. At moments, he's drowned out by his own band. Let's face it, this music sat in the vaults for nearly three decades. It's no wonder the sound on this record is not exactly crystal clear, though it has been restored to the greatest possible extent, which makes it in fact listenable. Tons of solos from everyone - John Gilmore leads a couple of stunning tenor solos, Danny Davis helps out on alto, while Marshall Allen is relegated to the oboe on "Friendly Love IV". Once again - I can't stress this enough - this album makes for mandatory listening for Ra and non-Ra fans, if only to get a fair glimpse of what a disciplined band could produce.
Recorded in NYC in 1963, "When Angels Speak of Love" was such a rare Saturn release that it had to be mastered from a couple of original pieces of vinyl. Nobody could actually track down the masters. Having said that, this re-issue was lovingly prepared, complete with usual historical notes, photos, etc. What's more thrilling however, the sound has been restored so it's rather hard to tell you're listening to a straight-from-vinyl issue, rather than a full-fledged tape re-master. As usual, around this time period, Arkestra dabbles much in echoes, delays, and effects that are mostly used to heighten your listening experience. With its spooky echo sound and John Gilmore's squelching alto, opening number "Celestial Fantasy" recalls Sun Ra's classic "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy". Don't be scared, weary space traveller, cause as the album progresses, there is light. "The Idea of It All" could pass for a hard-bop number circa mid 60's. In fact, the remainder of the number could easily fit into the hard-bop basket. Gentle solos with heavy emphasis of percussion [something Sun Ra favoured for eternity] ensure the ride is an easy pill to swallow. That is, until the ending 18-minute closer "Next Stop Mars". As it starts off with a traditional Arkestra chant, it goes on to travel the spaceways in a traditionally unconventional manner. Heavy solos ensue from John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, Danny Davis, Marshall Allen and Walter Miller. When these players blow, they literally topple the house down. Once again, echoes and reverb is used throughout to spice things up. Considering it has bits and pieces of everything [great compositions but also free- playing throughout], if you're wetting your feet in the universe of Sun Ra, "When Angels Speak of Love" is definitely for you.
Third release of Sun Ra material from Chicago's Atavistic label [following re-issues of "Nuclear War" and "Music from Tomorrow's World"] arrives in the form of "Spaceship Lullaby". For any Sun Ra fan who was shocked and delighted to hear their favourite spaceman play doo-wop numbers on "The Singles" collection, this issue simply digs deeper into the mid to late 50's vaults, when the pianist was playing with doo-wop bands such as The Nu Sounds, The Lintels and The Cosmic Rays. The collection of these early Ra tracks is a real blast. From the hilarious official song of the city contest entry "Chicago USA", to the lovely vocalizing on tracks like "Black Sky & Blue Moon" and "Honeysuckle Rose", The Nu Sounds prove to be an exceptionally gifted doo-wop ensemble. Likewise with The Lintels; though here, despite the sweet harmonies, the sound suffers from years of dust collecting. It's the final seven pieces that make entire collection even more worthwhile. These are recordings by Sun Ra's Cosmic Rays band. Here, we begin to hear the birth of chants, dissonant instrumentation, and heavy emphasis on percussion. Stand-out piece is "Africa". With its sing-along chant and its heavy use of percussion, we get an inside glimpse into the formation of one of the greatest big-bands in music's history. This isn't just a record one could recommend to Sun Ra fans, but rather to anyone interested in the development of music in the 50's.

- Tom Sekowski

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