Sun Ra Arkestra – Live in Ulm 1992
(Leo Reords Golden Years. LEO CD GY 030/031. CD Review by Peter Marsh)
Towards the end of 1990, Sun Ra suffered a series of debilitating strokes. Undaunted, the seventy-six year old was back on the road three months later. In early 1992 Ra made what was to be his final trip to Europe, though without two of the stars of the Arkestra – tenorist John Gilmore and vocalist/violinist June Tyson, both of whom were unable to travel due to illness.
This edition of the Arkestra featured several long running Ra alumni; the longest serving being altoist Marshall Allen and multi-instrumentalist James Jacson (reeds, flute and percussion). The brass section of Michael Ray, Ahmed Abdullah (trumpets) and Tyrone Hill (trombone) had been Arkestra members since the 70s. The newer recruits included the electric bassist Jothan Callins and drummer Buster Smith, alongside guitarist Bruce Edwards and a brace of percussionists.
This is almost a greatest hits set, stuffed with Ra staples such as Space Is The Place, Shadow Worlds, Love in Outer Space, Fate In A Pleasant Mood and so on. The band has a bumptious drive about it that's not too far away from the later Ellington Orchestra, though what Ellington would have made of their slightly Zappa-esque deconstruction of Prelude To A Kiss is hard to guess. Allen is on fantastic form here (as he always seems to be), moving from Johnny Hodges-like pathos to full on blowout in the space of a semiquaver.
Ray and Abdullah are on top form too and their energy is infectious; their vocal contributions are especially brilliant, nailing the same mix of soulfulness and knowing daftness that Funkadelic or Parliament managed (as George Clinton once remarked of Sun Ra, “That cat's out to lunch; the same place I eat at”). Ra's own contributions are obviously less energised than of old, but he guides proceedings with a steady hand and gives brief, typically oblique solos. He's credited with just piano on the sleeve but there is some synthesizer and electric keyboard work at points, though there's little of the galactic noisebursts of earlier years.
Though these were clearly difficult times for Ra and the Arkestra, you wouldn't guess it from listening to this – it's a hugely entertaining set. It's a shame that the recording quality isn't the best (it's an audience tape by the sounds of it, though for some reason someone's credited with 'engineering' it) and some sleevenotes would have been welcome. Though the indomitable Leo Records should be congratulated for putting this out (and deserve our support), it's hard to recommend the set for newbies. However, those of us who've already registered at the Outer Space Employment Agency should be snapping this one up pronto.