Sun Ra and His Space Arkestra - What Planet is This? (Leo Records/Golden Years of New Jazz 2xCD)
It's good to know that even now there are still classic Sun Ra recordings and concerts constantly being unearthed and issued for the very first time. And make no mistake, "What Planet is This?" is an instant classic in the vast and overwhelming Sun Ra catalogue. Leo Records have uncovered a real jewel with this 2xCD set, taken from a live July 1973 performance in New York. In fact it's kind of surprising that nobody got to this before Leo did - the Arkestra are at the peak of their creativity, they're mixing in standards with wide-open improvisations, and the ranks of the Arkestra are swollen to almost mind-boggling ranks. There's a grand total of 25 members playing across these two hours, including Ra (on piano, mini-moog, organ and "declamation"), John Gilmore (tenor sax, percussion, voice), Marshall Allen (alto sax, oboe, flute, percussion, cowbell, voice), Leroy Taylor (bass clarinet, bassoon, percussion, voice), Danny Ray Thompson (baritone sax, flute, percussion, voice), June Tyson (voice, declamation, percussion, dance) and a whole host of others on trumpet, trombone, megaphone, flugelhorn, tuba, cello, bass, drums, tympani, congas and dance. Suffice to say this is one of the more colourful Arkestra sets to grace my ears and you should probably know by now whether or not you absolutely need this (you do).
The first disc is an hour long and hosts two untitled improvisations (literally, that's what they're called), a 5-minute one to open the set and a half-hour one (!) about midway through. The first one begins with a kinda funky tribal percussive groove that quickly devolves into a majestic blowing session from the horn section which in turn leads to a drumming show-off pushed along by Ra's fingers skittering across the moog. Next is the Arkestra staple "Astro Black", lead beautifully by June Tyson. When she sings "the universe is in my voice/the universe speaks through this song", it's hard to argue. The whole band roars in for the closing minute of the track, seemingly bent on making as much noise as humanly possible. Next comes an unnumbered "Discipline", which may be the same as the one subtitled "Tall Trees in the Sun" found on the "Somewhere Else" album but I haven't got that one so I can't be sure. They both have approximately the same running time though. Considering the rest of the album it's a pretty straightforward piece, propelled by an insistant drum beat and featuring who I would guess to be largely Gilmore and Allen soloing over top. Ra himself adds some great otherworldly vibrations to the end of the piece. The near-30 minute improvisation comes next and it's really the kind of beast you have to hear to truly get a grip on. I mean, how am I going to explain to you what a 25-piece Arkestral improvisation sounds like? What I will tell you is that Ra makes use out of all 24 other members, giving them a complete workout in his endless search for strict discipline within an improvising unit. Don't even ask me how he did. Of note: Marshall Allen's unbelievable yowling solo, Ra's cascading walls of extra-terrestrial effects, Lex Humphries' controlled kit freakout, John Gilmore's lovely and haunting solo, and what I think is Eloe Omoe heaving his lungs red, sounding like a mastodon being born. Of course interspersed with all these highlights is the Arkestra charging forward at full-pace, still somehow managing to play as tightly as if they were playing a tune they've known their whole life. Ridiculous, insane, essential. And speaking of tunes the Arkestra knew their whole "life", the last three from the first disc are just that - Ra's trademark "Space is the Place" (one of the best versions I've heard, including an acapella middle-section!); "Enlightment", which would sound almost like a Christmas carol at this point were it not for a heavy solo from Allen that wouldn't have been at all out of place on the last Paul Flaherty record I reviewed; and a 10-minute romp through "Love in Outer Space" which builds with a near-menacing intensity augmented by Stanley Morgan and Russell Branch's work on the congas.
Disc two is almost light by comparison, althrough it still is three songs stretched across 47 minutes. The first is "The Shadow World", another Sun Ra song that has appeared on numerous albums though rarely as stretched out as it is here, in all its 20-minute glory. Though it starts with rampaging fury (dig Humphries the madman on the kit) with a few sax and moog solos, it slowly winds down, first into a sludgy, molten kind of dirge and then even more so until Ra's minimal moog effects are the only thing left, sounding way distant and off in another dimension. "Watusa, Egyptian March" plays on a classic, cinematic theme before going totally overboard with an absolute onslaught of dizzying percussion involving (I imagine) every member of the Arkestra in some form or another. This leads directly into the last track, "Disciline 27-II (Incl. What Planet is This?/The Universe Sent Me to Converse with You/My Brother the Sun)". It moves kinda swimmingly and soulfully at first up into a vocal duet/call-and-response thing involving Ra and Tyson lasting for the remaining 15 minutes. It's probably the only part of the whole set that isn't entirely engaging, but since it's placed at the end it works just find as a sinus-clearing breath-catching coda.
If you're a Sun Ra fan, I would recommend this right away hands down no hesitation balls to the wall let's do this thing. I mean, this is epic. Classic. Essential. Indispensable. That what-five-albums-would-you-want-if-you-were-stranded-on-a-deserted-island kind of necessary. Everything you've ever loved about Sun Ra, it's all right here, bold and bad and beautiful. In fact the only thing stopping me from recommending this to a total Sun Ra neophyte is the hefty price tag...but for veterans, you know this is where you need to be spending your money. And if you've heard other Sun Ra reissues/releases on Leo and are wary about this one due to previous quality issues, don't be. I haven't heard said earlier releases (I don't think, anyway) but numerous sources confirm that the recording on this one is light years ahead of those other ones. So you get one of the largest Arkstra ensembles ever put to tape playing classic tunes and wild improvisations all coming through crystal clear - really now, what could be finer?