Sun Ra - Featuring Pharoah Sanders & Black Harold [ESP Disk, 2009]

Cascading celestes. Psycho percussion pounding precariously. Squealing saxes & speaking flutes; poignant piano and space chanting. All of these sounds and many more besides you may find on this new re-issue of Sun Ra - Featuring Pharaoh Sanders and Black Harold.

Originally recorded in 1964, but not greeting the public until 1976, this record mainly serves as a historical document and curiosity exhibition, for a number of reasons. First, and most notably, is this is the only recorded evidence of Pharaoh Sander's tenure with the Arkestra, on tenor saxophone, replacing mainstay John Gilmore, just a year before Sanders' famous stint with Coltrane, including the infamous japanese performances. Secondly, this record was recorded live during a performance, at a time when Sun Ra was mainly being recorded in studios and loft spaces, giving a picture-window perspective of the monolithic Arkestra performances of the time. Lastly, the next year would see some of the more mythic mainstays of the Sun Ra canon released, like The Magic City, so this serves as an interesting transitional document. Featuring Pharaoh Sanders and Black Harold also has the first recorded version of The Shadow World, here called The World Shadow in typically Sonny word-play.

ESP's re-issue is massive and revelatory, casting the album in a whole new light. They have included a staggering 41:40 of extra material, which totally reconfigures the listening experience. I found the original to be a bit abrupt, especially considering all the hyperbole, clocking in at under thirty minutes. Some of the archival material seems like rehearsals for the takes that would end up on the album, but the colossal 20 minute percussion freak-out of The Other World is worth the price of admission. A real scorcher. Also interesting is Discipline 9, which musically is a smooth blues with space vocals about travelling the cosmos, and shakers and bells filling in the gaps and shows how Sun Ra was interested in expanding existing traditions into the future, constantly breaking new ground while steeped in the past.

It is this constant exploration which makes Sun Ra an interesting and worthwhile subject of study for me, but it can often serve as a double-edged sword. Sun Ra drew as much from modern classical traditions and exotic world music as from his background in swing and big band, and his arrangements and instrumentation are always interesting. It is obvious, from listening to Featuring Pharaoh Sanders and Black Harold, that we are dealing with a highly skilled group of improvisors, capable of much subtlety; but sometimes it seems as if the soloists have something to prove, as if to justify the long rehearsal hours and hermetic lifestyle they endured, being in the Arkestra. Sometimes it seems like they are blowing for blowing's sake, filling all the space with tidal waves of sound; a dense cacophony that is sometimes musically interesting, but I'm not sure what they are trying to say. Sometimes I miss the melody.

Featuring Pharaoh Sanders and Black Harold has some fantastic performances, notably the ominous, almost spooky bowed bass of Alan Silva, and Sun Ra's tumbling cavalcade of piano bluster, and the celeste is a nice, tinkling touch. The duel-percussion rev-up of The Other World is not to be missed, and all the bells and whistles, literally, fill up the spaces nicely. Those interested in Pharaoh Sander's career may find this a relevant document, hearing him before he became the towering behemoth of free-jazz, when he was working the door at night-clubs, and hustling to get gigs. Black Harold's speak-singing through his flute is kind of cool. Overall, this is a very demanding listen, and best suited for those already initiated into the mysteries of Sun Ra's cosmos, and the world of free-jazz at large.

J. Simpson

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Sun Ra Featuring Pharoah Sanders and Black Harold