Sun Ra - "Third Planet/Friendly Galaxy" (Disco 3000: Complete Milan Concert 1978 Disc 2)
In January of 1978, Sun Ra settled down in Italy for a residency that resulted in some of his storied work for the Horo label. Sadly, outside of some various music blogs, that section of the Ra discography still languishes beyond the reach of most listeners. This much expanded two-disc edition of Disco 3000 rectifies the situation somewhat by encompassing nearly an entire concert by the drastically pared down Arkestra at the Teatro Cilak in Milan. Just a quartet in size, with June Tyson only joining in on a closing “We Travel the Spaceways,” this version of the band wasn’t completely road tested. Trumpeter Michael Ray (who contributes anecdotal liners to the set) had been in the Ra ranks for just a few weeks and only playing beyond the bounds of rock and R&B for a comparable span. He throws himself into the deep end with courage and brio, sounding a bit rough in places, but largely holding his own in the company of rugged Ra staple John Gilmore. A slightly more seasoned Luqman Ali acquits himself well on the cans, riding out Ra’s more ebullient expositions, supplying color and shading to his quieter musings.
The performance setting allows Ra to indulge fully in the more prolix side of his musical personality. The title piece spools out over nearly a half hour, with Ra cueing stiff drum-machine breaks amidst a swirling spectrum of organ and moog colors. Gilmore and Ray reappear several times for solos, and it’s a thrilling opportunity to hear them stretch out as well. Scraps of familiar Ra themes percolate up through the keyboard-saturated sound cloud, including a galvanizing group chant on “Space is the Place.” Primarily though, it’s an opportunity for Ra to put his equipment through a rigorous set of paces. A few of the sections carry the semblance of star-gazing introspection, but there’s still greater accessibility here than the hermetic magnitude of “Atlantis.” Addicts of the Ra’s epic keyboard excursions will find much to fix on here. “Sun of the Cosmos” continues the bacchanalian orgy of electronics in a volcanic dialogue between the Ra and Ali that’s awash in all manner of knob twiddling and switch flipping. Gilmore and Ray get in on the action a bit later, spraying notes like so much intoxicating space dust.
As if indicative of Ra scratching his moog itch early, the next handful of tracks switch to piano and display a increased thematic focus. The tender ballad “Echoes of the World” works like a palate cleanser, with Gilmore matching Ra in terms of tender lyricism. “Sky Blues” bring the rudder of New Orleans second line to the Arkestral ship and show the syncopated rhythmic affinity between Ra and Ali. This was the time, after all, when Ra’s ears were open wide to the more soulful and funk-based sounds, including those of his adopted Philly home. Ray and Gilmore plug into their street band personas, soloing against the sliding groove as Ra plays stomping pedal-weighted accompaniment that would give consummate stochastic pianist Jaki Byard reason to grin. Gilmore revels in the setting, too, getting back to his Windy City roots with Earl Hines. The party continues for an additional hour on the second disc, as Ra returns to the keyboard side of his armory. High points include the rare opportunity to hear Gilmore and Ali athletically rip things up in a Coltrane-coded duet on “Third Planet,” Ra’s surging moog-saturated dirge “Dance of the Cosmo Aliens,” and the soaring a capella Gilmore improvisation on “Over the Rainbow.”
Art Yard’s packaging and presentation are top flight, as is the remastering, which brings the music into surprisingly bold relief considering the vintage. Previously provincial to Ra reissue vinyl, their turn to the compact disc format bodes as a promising new direction. Listeners may still have to pine in wait for the Horo sessions, but this surrogate set from the same period succeeds in leavening much of the sting from the indefinite delay.