Saturday, July 18, 2009

July 18: Sun Ra, "Space Is The Place"

Artist: Sun Ra
Album: Space Is The Place
Year: 1972
Label: Blue Thumb Records

Over the decades, there are always artists who make it their mission to challenge the dominant paradigm and bring into question exactly "what" qualifies as music of a certain genre, or even music in general. However, when it comes to experimental music, few artists have as long and stunning a history as the man called Sun Ra. Taking his own approach to jazz-based music since the mid-1950's, quite literally everything about his albums, from the music to the liner notes, is like nothing else ever in music. With his band, The Arkestra, he recorded nearly one hundred records, often releasing five or six within the same year. Obviously, this makes his recorded catalog quite daunting and difficult to figure out where to start. In 1972, Sun Ra released one of his most amazing, as well as most "accessible" albums with the magnificent recording, Space Is The Place.

It must be noted that Sun Ra actually recorded two albums entitled Space Is The Place in 1972. However, the second is a soundtrack for the film of the same name, and it did not see public release until 1993. For reference sake, this review will have nothing to do with the soundtrack. Space Is The Place is a perfect presentation of all of the styles which Sun Ra regularly explores. From the aptly named, other-worldly title track, to the much more standard-jazz-based "Images," the album serves as a wonderful introduction into the brilliant compositions of Sun Ra. Sun Ra was quite infamous for purposefully writing incorrect liner notes on his albums, or simply not writing them at all. This makes it rather difficult to name the players and producers on the albums, but over the years, much of this has been discovered and confirmed. On Space Is The Place, Sun Ra turned to his longtime producer, Alton Abraham, as well as "new guy," Ed Michel, and the combination works perfectly. Over his career, Abraham worked with virtually no other artists, so his understanding of the aesthetic that Sun Ra was looking to achieve was second to none. Michel, who worked with the likes of Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Saunders, provided a great contrast, and perhaps this is why Space Is The Place is far more accessible than most of Sun Ra's other recordings.

Obviously, to achieve the amazing sound and style that is found on Space Is The Place, Sun Ra needed to surround himself with exceptionally talented musicians. Within The Arkestra, some of the finest players in history can be found. Though there were others on the album playing the instruments, Space Is The Place features one of the most stunning and accomplished trio of saxophone players found anywhere else in recorded history. John Gilmore, who actually gave John Coltrane lessons in the late 1950's, spent nearly his entire career with Sun Ra, though he also recorded with Andrew Hill and Art Blakey. Gilmore is also notable as he was the band leader for the seminal hard-bop recording, Blowing In From Chicago. Playing both bass and sax on Space Is The Place, Laurdine "Pat" Patrick, was a mainstay within The Arkestra for more than forty years. Patrick also recorded with John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, as well as being a member of Duke Ellington's big band. Marshall Allen, also a lifetime member of The Arkestra, was one of Sun Ra's closest friends, and the two constantly pushed one another to go deeper into uncharted musical territory. When Sun Ra passed away in 1993, Allen took over as the leader of The Arkestra, and they still perform to this day. Drummer Lex Humphries worked with everyone from John Coltrane to Wes Montgomery, yet much of his most influential work was done within his short time with The Arkestra. Though nearly a dozen other musicians contributed to Space Is The Place, it is this core of musicians who help to take the album into the musical stratosphere.

It goes without saying that at the core of the genius music presented on Space Is The Place, stands musician and composer extraordinaire, Sun Ra. Born Herman Poole Blount, Sun Ra was the first band leader to incorporate elements like electric bass and keyboards, as well as the first to incorporate freeform improvisations for the entire group simultaneously. The Arkestra was also one of the first jazz outfits who have two bass players, extensive polyrhythms, as well as being pioneers in modal jazz. On Space Is The Place, Sun Ra pushes these ideas further, often sounding as spacey as Pink Floyd, yet there is always a funky, jazzy mood that permeates each song. Only adding in vocals when necessary, it is clear that Sun Ra views them as another musical instrument, as opposed to a vehicle for delivery of "meaning" to the song. This is no more apparent than on the albums' meandering title track. With "The Space Ethnic Voices" repeating the words "space is the place" over and over in different rhythms for nearly the entire twenty minute run of the song, their voices present the epitome of singing being used for something other than lyrical delivery. Sounding like a slightly less skilled version of Sarah Vaguhn, singer June Tyson served as the "leader" of the Space Ethnic Voices and she contributed the few "solo" lines found on the song. Cheryl Banks, Ruth Wright, and Judith Holton round out the "Voices," and their combined work is often as stunning as the music. The lyrics on Space Is The Place are nothing deep, yet the manner in which they are incorporated into the overall sound makes them just as important as any of the formal instruments.

The influence of Sun Ra is nearly immeasurable, both musically as well as culturally. Once one experiences Sun Ra's sound, style, and ethos, one can clearly see where George Clinton drew much of his own style and musical approach. It is also easy to make a direct connection between Sun Ra's work to bring about pride within the African American community and the cultural and political renaissance of the community in the 1960's. Truly, in every aspect, there have been very few musicians who have had the wide range and long lasting impact that was achieved by Sun Ra. Taking elements from jazz, bop, and even traditional African music, Sun Ra blends it all together, and then adds in spacey keyboard sounds and loops, making for some of the most unique music ever heard. Easily one of the most important figures in the entire history of recorded music, Sun Ra recorded more records in his career than nearly any other musician. With a number of these albums being absolute "classics," it is rather difficult to single out a specific album as his "best work" or "most essential" recording. However, Sun Ra's 1972 album, Space Is The Place, is easily one of his greatest musical achievements, as it also provides a perfect representation of the varied styles he presents throughout his recorded catalog. Space Is The Place is also one of his most "accessible" albums, and is a "must own" for dedicated fans, as well as those who have never experienced his amazing music.

Standout tracks: "Space Is The Place," "Images," "Rocket Number Nine."

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