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Sun Ra - Featuring Pharoah Sanders & Black Harold

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Artist: Sun Ra

Album: Featuring Pharoah Sanders & Black Harold

Label: ESP-Disk

Review date: Apr. 27, 2009

Scarcity and personnel anomalies have both contributed to the legendary quality of Sun Ra Featuring Pharoah Sanders & Black Harold. Pressed in small quantities on Ra’s El Saturn label in 1976, it went from hard to find – you had to get lucky when someone on the Arkestral bandstand pulled out the record box at intermission – to impossible to affordably attain after the Ra vinyl discography’s stock rose astronomically during the ’90s. And until now, it never got the reissue treatment that first Evidence Records and then Atavistic Records accorded other Saturns. But it’s also a rare set without John Gilmore, who was a key member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra from its founding until Ra’s death as well as the only extent documentation of tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders’ tenure with the Arkestra. While he was soon to gain notoriety as the turned-up flame scorching the collective behinds of John Coltrane’s late-period groups, when Sanders joined up in 1964 he was homeless and eeking out a living working the door at a club that happened to book Ra. Reportedly Ra passed the first time Sanders asked to join, but he reconsidered when Gilmore left the band for a season to try his fortunes in other groups. Black Harold (a.k.a. Harold Murray), the other titular musician, is an under-recorded percussion and flute player who went on to mentor better-known musicians like Kahil El’Zabar.

More heard about than heard until now, the album has finally made it to CD through the offices of the revived ESP-Disk. ESP’s researchers have corrected the line-up information and turned up evidence that the concert from which the album is drawn took place on December 31, 1964, at Judson Hall, not June 15 of that year as stated in other discographies. But it’s not just the documentation, notoriously inaccurate on original El Saturn releases, that has changed. The original LP was quite short, clocking in at just half an hour. It turns out there was more; this CD includes 41:40 of extra music from the same set that produced the original album, which has been appended in stereo before the old album’s six mono tracks. The additional material transforms what was once a brief but well-balanced set into a sprawling entity with a different flow and shape. It’s fair to ask whether more, in this case, means more.

From a documentary perspective, the CD’s worth is hard to dispute. Ra’s albums from that period, one of his most creative, were done in studios or rehearsal lofts, while this is a concert recording with an unusual line-up that includes an early appearance by bassist Alan Silva as well as the titular stars. The original side one now commences with track six. “Gods on a Safari” is a brass fanfare that quickly gives way to an eerie bowed bass solo, probably by Silva. Then comes an early version of Magic City’s “The Shadow World,” given the inverted title “The World Shadow.” This version provides an excellent chance to hear Sanders at the dawn of his career. His solo flips between the overblowing that would become his calling card and quieter, anxious-sounding phrases, but it lacks the Herculean intensity and expanse of his playing with Coltrane in Japan a little over a year down the road. Passages of surging percussion played by two drummers and bolstered by the rest of the ensemble weave, threaded with wigged-out space vocals by Art Jenkins, leave just as strong a mark. Then the piece dissipates for a moment before the Arkestra gathers itself and launches into a “Rocket Number 9” that is much wilder than the version the Chicago-based group had recorded a few years previously for Interstellar Low Ways; again, drum breaks stoke the excitement.

While drums and bells were essential coloristic elements on studio albums of that era, here they are just as important as the horns and Ra’s keyboards. The original side two kicks of with a flute showcase, “The Voice Of Pan,” which shows off Murray’s Rahsaan Roland Kirk-like vocalized flute style over a tapestry of yet more percussion; despite the horn players in the title, this set stands out from its contemporaries in predicting the importance of quasi-African percussion to the Arkestra a few years out. “Dawn Over Israel” starts out as a hung-over chamber blues with the focus once more on the strings, and then comes to a stop for a dramatic, cluster-heavy piano interlude before finally segueing into a quieter melody named “Space Mates” with the flute again to the fore. This tune well captures the brinksmanship Ra indulged in those years, pushing toward outer space and then pulling back into music more recognizably situated within the jazz continuum.

The new material, despite being similar in sound to the original LP, makes the CD into a very different album. It now includes a couple familiar space chants, and only total Ra fanatics will really need another version of “The Second Stop Is Jupiter.” Harold and Sanders both make their marks, the latter in tandem with baritone sax ace Pat Patrick in the first half of a 20-minute long epic called “The Other World.” This piece feels like someone took “The Shadow World” apart and scattered its pieces on either side of a dynamic solo by one of the drummers, either Clifford Jarvis or Jimmhi Johnson, and a full-ensemble percussion interlude. It’s an impressive performance, but since “The World Shadow” waits just down the road, playing the CD in one sitting now imparts the feeling of being lectured to twice. Black Harold and another uncredited flute player, probably Marshall Allen, stand out on a more essential new piece, “The New Tomorrow.” Its interludes for keening strings — this record could just as deservedly have been titled Featuring Alan Silva and Ronnie Boykins — and snaky double reeds feel like an extension of the Cosmic Tones’ experiments in psychedelic avant-classical exotica. However, Ra’s all-over-the-keyboard piano solo is so similar to the one on “Dawn Over Israel,” it adds to the experience of reiteration. This does honestly represents the Arkestra concert experience, which could last for five hours at a stretch.

Sun Ra Featuring Pharoah Sanders & Black Harold bridges Ra’s hermetic experiments of the early ’60s with the massive concert spectacles that earned him much notoriety by the other end of the decade, and that’s enough to make it worth your attention if you’re a Ra devotee. It also gives a taste of early Sanders, when he was lifting off to achieve the ferocity of his work with Coltrane. And it’s full to overflowing with strong music. But if you’re looking for the best of this Arkestral era, consider checking out The Magic City or Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy first.

By Bill Meyer

Other Reviews of Sun Ra

Spaceship Lullaby

Piano Recital

Heliocentric Worlds, Vols. 1-3

Strange Strings

The Night of the Purple Moon

Disco 3000

Some Blues But Not The Kind That's Blue

Sleeping Beauty

Secrets of the Sun

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