In July of 1976 The Sun Ra Arkestra played the Montreux festival. Afterward, they lived in Paris for a couple months. During that time they recorded Cosmos for the obscure French label Cobra. The album has a laid-back, feel-good vibe. Yet it is never too easy. There are still some skronky horn solos, but they blend into mellow electric bass lines and leisurely accompaniment tempos. John Gilmore lends a really beautiful inside/outside solo on “Jazz From an Unknown Planet” toward the end too. The album also has that characteristically 1970s warm and round production aesthetic. The music might be viewed as a synthesis of a lot of typical Arkestra styles, going back to stuff from the 1950s up through the fusion era, blended together as opposed to alternating to and fro. Nothing here a Sun Ra fanatic hasn’t heard elsewhere, but the overall chilled-out ambiance is quite nice and this sustains itself well from start to finish. A really nice one — among the more pleasant Arkestra discs of the era.
A live recording from the Jazz Showcase in Chicago in November of 1977. The first side of the original LP is a lot of odd stuff, meandering around and then ending with a space chant that blends typical Ra afro-futurism with bits of a gospel song (“I Got Shoes” AKA “Walk Over God’s Heaven” etc.). Side two has some horn charts that actually seem rehearsed or pre-written, in contrast to just about everything to that point, but then concludes with some fiery, shrieking sax playing from one or both of the altoists then Ra on keyboards. While this has an intimate feel of a casual live show, it is only on side two that it starts to seem really worthwhile. Not one for Ra newcomers.
Though a bit patchy in places, Calling Planet Earth is an unequaled showcase for the Arkestra’s mighty sax section of John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, Marshall Allen and Danny Davis. Sun Ra had a harder time recruiting brass players after relocating to New York City. But the move actually strengthened the sax lineup, as Patrick came back into the fold–he tears up his solo on “Calling Planet Earth.” [side note: Pat Patrick had relocated to New York ahead of Ra and had left his family behind in Chicago, including his son and future Massachusetts governor Deval]
This early offering from Sun Ra is more for completists. That is to say the converted will appreciate this more than the unconverted. It’s nice enough, if a little rough in the performances and recording fidelity. There are certainly hints (“India,” “El is a Sound of Joy,” “Medicine for a Nightmare”) of what was to come. But all we really get are hints, or, at least, undeveloped sketches and first passes. As a composer, Ra was clearly still developing. There is more hard bop here than on any other Sun Ra album, and bear in mind that hard bop sort of represented the mainstream in jazz at the time. But those hints at other things are as weird as anything you could find in the late 1950s — like Ra’s early model electric piano on some of the first few songs. On the whole, though, the results are not quite as impressive as other Ra recordings from roughly the same era when the Arkestra was based in Chicago. “Kingdom of Not” and “Advice to Medics” are my favorite tracks.
A very synth-heavy live set recorded in Detroit circa 1980-81. This is very reminiscent of Disco 3000 and Media Dreams but with more of a focus on Ra. Compared to similar recordings this is not exactly top-tier stuff, but it’s still full of good vibes (AND crazy synth noise) for the Ra fan. “Journey Stars Beyond,” which takes up all of side two, is definitely the highlight.
Like Space Is the Place and Soundtrack to the Film Space Is the Place, The Solar-Myth Approach (Vol 1) is a very broad and eclectic sampling of various musical forms Sun Ra and his Arkestra had developed up through the early 1970s. Early on there is a short space chant with “Realm of Lightning” (better known as “Outer Spaceways Incorporated”). “Seen III, Took 4” is a somewhat rare look back to the abstract experiments of the group’s early days in New York City, something akin to Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy. “They’ll Come Back” starts with more exotic sounds and a very persistent bowed bass, but eventually transforms into “Ancient Aiethopia,” a song the band had been performing since the 1950s. The rest is mostly pretty percussion-heavy, with the soloing tending toward the difficult. The sound here is a bit lo-fi, and the performances may not quite be top-tier, but despite those potential concerns this would still make a fairly good introduction to the work of Sun Ra, especially for more adventurous souls — with the caveat that there are even better recordings out there from the group ready to be heard.
A pretty good live set. This is one of the most high fidelity live recordings of the Arkestra pre-1980, and it features everything from Cecil Taylor-like piano pounding (“Of the Other Tomorrow”) to synthesizer freak-outs (“Gods of the Thunder Realm”) to afro-futurist space chants (“We Travel the Spaceways”) to big band sci-fi exotica (“Lights on a Satellite” and “El Is the Sound of Joy”) to a loose rendition of a standard (“Take the ‘A’ Train”) to plenty of songs with free soloing (“For the Sunrise,” “The House of Eternal Being” and “Prelude”). It is somewhat interchangeable with a lot of other live Arkestra recordings of the era though. Personally, because of the slightly showy, programmatic nature of these performances, I prefer the wild yet stately late 60s recording Pictures of Infinity, some of the more intense early 70s live discs like Nuits de la Fondation Maeght, Vol. 1, It’s After the End of the World: Live at the Donaueschingen and Berlin Festivals, the intimate late 70s sets like Disco 3000 and Media Dreams, the lively mid-80s live sets, Live in Nickelsdorf 1984 (and its counterpart Live at Praxis ’84), and even the coarse Egyptian sets like Live in Egypt 1 and the autumnal Live at the Hackney Empire. If that seems like a lengthy list, then the point is made. Live at Montreux is not bad at all, but faces stiff competition from so many other Sun Ra live recordings that it doesn’t merit any special attention.
The Arkestra has more polished performances on record, as well as numerous live sets that were recorded better. Yet this collection of the three original Praxis volumes that documented a show in Greece still offers a uniquely comprehensive view of the basic template for late period Sun Ra. There were noticeably greater numbers of standards, something likely driven by a number of factors including heightened confidence from recent successes, Sun Ra’s advancing age (he was about to enter his seventies), and even overtures to changing commercial tastes (the Eighties being known for a “conservative” movement in jazz). The band was frequently recreating Fletcher Henderson recordings like “Yeah, Man!” too. These were not just performances of Henderson’s signature songs with their original arrangements, but actually live, note-for-note recitations of the old recordings in their entirety. If you dig this, note that a concert from two weeks later is available on Live in Nickelsdorf 1984 that is at least as good (maybe better).
Media Dreams was recorded in January 1978 on the same Italian tour as Disco 3000, with the same quartet but earlier in the month. There are clear parallels with Disco 3000. Although Sun Ra switches over to a piano toward the end of the album, most of this features him on synthesizer. Listeners with an affinity for the daring long-form works he was regularly producing in the late 1960s will probably find lots to like here. For instance, the opening “Saturn Research” is a particularly effective sonic experiment. On the other hand, listeners not in tune with abstract improvisation will probably prefer other efforts with more grounded rhythms and pronounced melodies.
Why don’t people like this more? It’s pretty much a continuation of what Sun Ra was up to with Reflections in Blue, but also Blue Delight and Purple Night, or even The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra for that matter. Mostly it leans on big band traditions with trademark Ra harmonic twists and rhythmic subtlety, to great effect on the first two numbers though a little less so on “Beautiful Love” with its quavering vocals. The last part of the album gets into his more sci fi exotica stuff. In all, the performances and arrangements are quite good — better even than some of the late 1980s albums just mentioned — and the only real drawback to this is the production, which has a sterile and flat feel that was unfortunately common at the time.