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Sun Ra - Secrets of the Sun

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Artist: Sun Ra

Album: Secrets of the Sun

Label: Atavistic

Review date: Nov. 10, 2008

Ra Ra Ra

Previously one of the rarest of Ra records, Secrets of the Sun dates from shortly after the Arkestra’s early ’60s exodus from Chicago to New York. The transition in locale translates to a difference in sound; Ra began dismantling the more prescribed structures of his compositions in favor of a looser doctrine that folded in freer improvisation and proto-psychedelia. The better known Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy and Fate in a Pleasant Mood are contemporaneous points of reference, both in terms of approach and for the presence of percussionist Tommy Hunter’s innovative engineering effects that sheathe several of the pieces in echo and add immeasurably to the otherworldly aural decor.

The original album offers something of a hodgepodge, with each track featuring a different ensemble configuration ranging in scope from quintet to octet. Space safaris in miniature, “Friendly Galaxy” and “Solar Differential” anchor on ostinati from the reliable Ronnie Boykins and rumbling block chords from the redoubtable Ra. The first piece paints in the lush primary colors of twining flutes, flugelhorn, bass clarinet and unusual for the provenance, the electric guitar of Calvin Newborn. The second centers on the “space voice” of Art Jenkins, apparently achieved by “singing into a glass” and adding thick waves of reverb to the ensuing trombone-like vernacular. Hunter’s treatments on “Love in Outer Space” are even more invasive; he enhances John Gilmore’s Arabic-influenced bass clarinet solo, giving it gravitas near par with “Adventure Equation” from the earlier mentioned Cosmic Tones.

“Space Aura” is a close cousin to the band’s previous Chicago fare, with its tightly charted harmonies and concise solos. It’s chance to hear Ra’s troika of John Gilmore, Pat Patrick and Marshall Allen on their main reeds and in concentrated collusion. Even better, Gilmore is in evidence on the delirious tenor improvisation that powers “Reflects Motion” alongside the frenzied tandem drumming of Hunter and C. Scoby Stroman. Those strong polyrhythmic proclivities atomize on “Solar Symbols,” a fragment that unfolds as a shimmering jungle of reverb-saturated percussion and points to a performance practice that would become even more common to the band’s stage craft in the coming years.

Producer John Corbett’s custom of including recently excavated antiquities to releases in the Unheard Music Series is particularly well served on this release. Appended as an LP side-sized coda, the cut-and-paste conclave “Flight to Mars” finds an octet comprised in part of Arkestra principals (Allen, Patrick, Gilmore, Boykins) roaming far and wide in the wake of an extended Ra piano improvisation. Newborn returns, and it’s a refreshing detour into incongruity to hear him peel off single notes across Boykins’ strolling bass line, in light of the tumult that’s come prior. The bassist’s string-shearing ingenuity at the track’s tail end just might sit as the disc’s finest segment.

Saturn albums aren’t renowned for anything approaching pristine audio. Murk and blemishes are expected parts of the bargain, but even by those compromised standards, the music’s occasionally washed out sound is borderline problematic. True Ra believers will hardly care a whit however, and the aged audio is easy to forgive given the album’s overarching quality and historical importance. With the Ra discography arguably more readily accessible than it’s ever been, this once rarefied record still stands out.

By Derek Taylor

Other Reviews of Sun Ra

Spaceship Lullaby

Piano Recital

Heliocentric Worlds, Vols. 1-3

Strange Strings

The Night of the Purple Moon

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