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The Boston Phoenix Space Shots

Sun Ra's stellar legacy.

By Ed Hazell

APRIL 13, 1998:  During his lifetime, Sun Ra faced charges of charletanism from unsympathetic critics who thought his oddball behavior and bizarre costumes concealed a lack of talent. His purple robes and rhinestone-spangled helmets were often misinterpreted as empty showmanship, but they served a serious purpose. Safe behind a barrier of outrageous costumes, deliberate obscurity, genuine mysticism, and ironic humor, Ra and his Arkestra were free to take jazz, blues, and funk places they had never been before. The players used swing rhythms and the spectacle of nightclub floor shows to promote a kind of ecstasy that had more to do with the spirit than with sex. The lonely train sounds that haunt the blues became futuristic synthesizer noises -- Engine Number Nine transformed into Rocket Number Nine. The open highway of America's popular mythology was reinvented by Ra as the Interstellar Lowway, a new metaphor for liberation, taken to a galactic scale. And on his 1973 classic Space Is the Place, which has just been reissued on CD, Ra proved that far from being lost in space, he'd become a master of jazz in all its many forms.

The cosmic "bweep-bweep" of Sun Ra's synthesizer on the epic title track of Space Is the Place immediately launches you into sonic territory foreign to most jazz. Then for more than 20 minutes, solos ebb and flow in orderly succession over a refrain by a chorus of four women singers (the Ethnic Space Voices) and a bass-and-baritone-sax vamp. Eloe Omoe's urgent bass-clarinet warbling gives way to alto-saxophonists Danny Davis and Marshall Allen squealing in tightly coordinated duets. Ominous electric keyboard rumblings are followed by strange yodels. Yet it comes across as a remarkably coherent performance -- even the densest passages are clear and controlled. And even here, in deepest Sun Ra space, his band's roots on planet Earth are visible in the gospel-derived vocalizing, the soul-music vamps, and the various soloists, whose sound brings to mind revival-meeting speaking-in-tongues.

In a characteristic stretch, the band segue from the far-out title track to the bebop-inflected "Images," a sweet-natured tune reminiscent of Tadd Dameron that dates back to Ra's 1958 Jazz in Silhouette album. They play in approximate tune, as they often did, which gives the densely orchestrated arrangement a dissonant sharpness that inspires a fluid John Gilmore tenor-sax solo. Rounding out this astonishingly diverse album are "Sea of Sounds," an abstract sound piece; "Discipline 33," a dreamy nocturne capped off by a slowly arching trumpet solo; and a frantically uptempo "Rocket Number Nine."

Ra passed away in 1993, but various members of his Arkestra have continued their leader's sonic explorations in smaller satellite groups. This is a welcome development, since Arkestra members rarely recorded outside the band while Ra was alive. Out of the Box (CIMP), the first release from a quartet fronted by alto-saxophonist Marshall Allen and trombonist Tyrone Hill, two of the Arkestra's most forceful voices, shows them still within the Sun Ra orbit but with distinctive personalities of their own.

It's especially good to hear the 74-year-old Allen -- who spent virtually all his career in the Arkestra, beginning in 1957 -- finally get the extended solo space he deserves. Ra tended to feature Gilmore more than the Arkestra's other reed players, and Allen's regular concert feature on "Tea for Two" got to be somewhat routine. The album reveals him to be one of the alto saxophone's most compelling and original voices. An explosively unpredictable soloist with a diamond-hard, bluesy tone, Allen pits fragmented, jittery episodes against long, sharp-angled lines in memorable extended solos on Strayhorn's "Lush Life" and Sun Ra's "Angels and Demons at Play."

Hill, an Arkestra member "only" since 1970, is just as much an individual. His mute work on "My One and Only Love," a duet with bassist Jason Oettel, mimics the human voice and creates oddly abstract sounds as well. And he can string together short, punchy riffs into cohesive solos in tempo, as he does on Ra's "Discipline 27" or in free time. The quartet's drummer, longtime Arkestra member Samarai Celestial, died of heart problems shortly after this session, but he plays with great fervor here, melding African polyrhythms, swing, and free pulse into a percussive wave that lifts the music right out where it belongs -- deep space.


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