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Sun Ra - Piano Recital

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Artist: Sun Ra

Album: Piano Recital

Label: Golden Years of New Jazz

Review date: Oct. 7, 2003

Monorails and Satellites stands as my favorite Sun Ra solo piano recital to date. Recorded in 1966, it’s a gripping and often playful distillation of his at once otherworldly and tradition-savvy technique. The record clocks in at a lean 32 minutes and was released in miniscule batches on Ra’s own self-produced Saturn imprint. It was also, until Evidence Records' timely reissue in 1993, one of the more difficult vinyl artifacts to locate.

Sadly, my opening assertion isn’t saying much, since the number of Sun Ra solo albums can fit easily on the fingers of a single hand. It’s a strange reality considering Ra’s voluminous catalog of releases- a body of space age supersonic song that easily stretches into the triple digits. But like Duke Ellington, Ra’s keyboard skills frequently took a backseat to his sterling reputation as a bandleader and the majority of his records feature the Arkestra in tow.

Leo Records has been filling gaps in the Sun Ra archive for several years with regular entries in its Golden Years of New Jazz series. Piano Recital, the latest Ra antiquity unearthed by the label, is just that, a solo set of the Saturnian recorded at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice during the fall of 1977 (the same year as two other solo albums on the Improvising Artists label, Solo Piano and St. Louis Blues). An absence of accompanying notes leaves the particulars of the gig a mystery, but the music largely speaks for itself. Fidelity is a bit distant and dodgy, but some audio scrubbing does wonders in bringing Ra’s acoustic keyboard into bolder relief. Echoing his larger Arkestral concerts of the era, he juggles a program of standards like Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” and Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” with originals like “Friendly Galaxy” and “Angel Race.” There are also a pair of ‘free’ improvisations and a blues aboard to complete the itinerary on the hour long flight of fancy.

While pleasurable and passable, some of Ra’s renderings aren’t all that revelatory. “Outer Spaceways, Inc.” bogs down under too many right-hand flourishes and seems unnecessarily cluttered. The “Blues” piece comes off more like an exercise in block chording filler than a formidable challenge to Ra’s facile digits. Other pieces are more engaging, such as the tremendously lyrical take on “Love in Outer Space” that invests the delicately amorous melody with a stream of right hand minutiae. Among the standards, John Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” (one of Ra’s favorites) receives a predictably stride-heavy treatment and the pianist revels in the rolling momentum of the Ragtime classic. The action on “Penthouse Serenade” proves far less foreseeable as Ra dives headlong into a dark hummingbird blur of punishing clusters before parting the clouds in a sunny exposition of the theme. He also finds space to converse with the crowd and brief samples of his colloquy are attached to several of the tunes. The cascading applause between tracks suggests that the audience was more than pleased by their ticket purchases.

Limited to a pressing of 1500, Ra fanatics the world over are certain to snap this up in droves and it’s likely to revert quickly into high-priced collector’s bait. Whether more casual fans need to shell out the shekels is another matter. I’m certainly happy to have a copy, but I doubt it will be rivaling the well-spun Monorails in my heavy rotation. Now, if only solo albums of Ra on Solar Sound Instrument (Hohner Clavinet) or Astro Space Organ (Gibson Kalamazoo) would materialize from out of the firmament. That would truly be something to thank our lucky stars about.

By Derek Taylor

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