The single most important event in Sun Ra's life took place in 1936 (or 1937, or 1952...) when he was allegedly abducted to Saturn and told to drop out of school (we should all be so successful after doing this). However, the arguable second place — something less important on a personal level yet crucial for the world of jazz — occurred in 1964 when the aberrantly supernatural forces of that year (e.g. Jean-Paul Sartre wins the Nobel Prize for literature, Martin Luther King wins for Peace, Milton Babbitt writes Philomel, Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, A Love Supreme, debut albums from the Rolling Stones and Simon & Garfunkel) convened and led him to meet a young door man/cook named Farrell Sanders, someone Ra almost passed on because he "already had the guys that he needed" (the temporary departure of long-time Arkestra member John Gilmore took care of this minor oversight).
This live snapshot from the final day of the New York "Four Days in December" (1964) festival explores the cusp of Sanders' pre-Coltrane era and Ra's pre-synthesizer Arkestra. Included is the complete original record (still mono, but slightly cleaned up) and, more importantly, five previously unreleased tracks which begin the set. After the brief piano and celeste fury on the opener, "Cosmic Interpretation", bassist Ronnie Boykins joins Ra with an equivalent storm of sawing and reaching for unknown notes. Before you can say "Ornette Coleman", Sanders is on deck with a squalling, nearly-throttled human sacrifice, taking the performance from mild violence to utter maelstrom. The players adopt something idiosyncratic for, say, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, each countering the other until the breaking point before they actually do: the band peels back to reveal wiggling solo sax, a few jabs by trumpeter Al Evans, then allows drummer Jimmhi Johnson a ten-minute, console melting (the recording goes a bit wobbly at the apex) voyage of his own. Soon, percussionist Cliff Jarvis entwines himself into the piece with yelps, slamming congas and tinkling bells, hijacking the rhythm into something a bit more West African. The group segues into the next movement ("The Second Stop Is Jupiter") with mumbles, a shout of "all out...for Jupiter!" and a brief-but-airtight static block of sound. Turning on a dime, Ra works a placid, child-like ostinato behind Harold "Black Harold" Murray's lilting flute ballad. The respite doesn't endure, however, as Sanders, Marshall Allen (alto sax) and Pat Patrick (baritone sax) turn sinister over a searing arco bass pedal: with mouth pieces alone, they squeak, writhe, drop in snippets of Bolero and moan in nasal tones like wretched snake charmers seducing you into a darkened alleyway. The highlight — or perhaps simply the starkest contrast to the rest of the show — of this bonus material is the Monk meets Messiaen "Discipline 9". From a few minutes of fumbling keys and bird calls the band crossfades into a rumbling "blues" fit for a dead man; the Arkestra is now a gothic chain gang, the members slowly repeating "we travel/the spaceways/from planet/to planet" with a peculiar "so off it's on" pan-harmonic delivery.
Absent is the curious kitsch and hypnotic ego of later Sun Ra outings, but the album is just as compelling, mysterious and amazing as any in his catalog — possibly just for the fact that this artifact is as irrelevantly relevant today as it was 45 years ago.
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