Saturday, March 2, 2013

Saturn Research

Space age TV: Sun Ra and his interstellar crew go prime-time on NBC's "Saturday Night Live,"
May 20, 1978. From "Jazz: The First Century"

I got to see Sun Ra and his Arkestra a half-dozen times, mostly in Chicago, but later in New York City, too. It was always a trip to be in the presence of Mr. Mystery. You never were quite sure what to expect. Would Ra lead his men into an interplanetary miasma of free-jazz improv with Marshall Allen frantically fanning the keys on his weathered alto and Ahmed Abdullah issuing mighty trumpet blasts while balanced precariously on one leg on his chair? Would Ra revisit his distant past with a raggy arrangement of a hoary Fletcher Henderson number? Would John Gilmore be there? Danny Bank or Pat Patrick?

The Sunrise: Ra fans it for the fans at the 1980 Chicago Jazz
Festival. Photo by Lauren Deutsch
It was different every time. I remember the last time I saw them – in a moldering auditorium on Houston St. on a sweltering evening in New York City. The entire reed section – Allen, Gilmore and the rest – weren't playing saxophones. Instead, they had these odd rectangular tubes with keys on them. Midi woodwind interfaces, I guess they were. I'd never seen anything like it, and the sounds they produced were most definitely other-worldly.

I knew about Ra from my high school days when, at the Boston Tea Party one evening, I was assaulted by a quintet from Detroit. I say "assaulted," because that's what a performance by the MC5 was like in those days. Those greasy guys were positively scary. But they did a tune called "Rocket No. 9" which they dedicated to something called "Sun Ra." I was just beginning to learn about jazz, and it wasn't too long after that encounter that I knew all about Herman Blount and his idiosyncratic approach to music and life.

Fast forward to Chicago in the mid-'70s. I was in graduate school and buying up all the jazz records I could find. One place that was a record-fiend's mecca was the Jazz Record Mart at 7 W. Grand. Home of Delmark Records, the bailiwick of Bob Koester, the place was filled to the rafters with sides of all varieties, formats, styles, conditions and value. If it came over the transom and was playable, Koester would sell it. His pricing priorities were hard to figure, but his wares were nearly always offered at a reasonable cost.

One artist's sides nearly always wound up in the bargain bin. Yeah, that's right – Sun Ra was a stiff as far as Koester was concerned. I guess Bob had seen so many of Ra's privately issued LPs that he just couldn't get rid of them fast enough. They came in all manner of hand-decorated covers, some with liner notes taped to their backsides. There were even original Saturn issues from the late '50s, Classic LPs like "Monorails and Satellites" or "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy." Most could be had for $1.59. Some I picked up for 79 cents. Good deal.

Bob Koester in his element, a few years before I got there. Wish
I'd been around to grab a few of those Prestige Jams for a quarter.
So here are two of the more obscure Sun Ra sides that I acquired at the Jazz Record Mart those many years ago. If you're hesitant about Ra's music, be assured that these recordings capture the Arkestra at its most conventional (for the most part). "Shield" has the band running through Son's arrangements of some standards with excellent work from John Gilmore and from a fine trumpet player named Walter Miller (unknown to me). "Media" is top heavy with Ra's electronic keyboard gizmos and has a looped drum/bass pattern that's reminiscent of "Surfin' Bird," but there's also terrific Gilmore and more trumpeting from a gent named Michael Ray (also unknown to me). Try 'em out! The covers, by the way, are minimal – Xeroxes colored in with marker and taped to plain white covers, now yellowed a bit with age.

As always, these tunes were ripped from the original vinyl with, in both cases, no tinkering with the sound whatsoever.

The Invisible Shield • Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Research Arkestra
El Saturn Records 144000
1-6: New York, NY, 1962; 7-9: New York, NY or Philadelphia, PA, 1970 

1. State Street (Ra)
Sun Ra, p; Walter Miller, tp; Al Evans, flg; Ali Hassan, tb; Marshall Allen, as, fl;
John Gilmore, ts; Pat Patrick, bs; Michael White, vln; Ronnie Boykins, b; Clifford Jarvis, d.

2. Sometimes I’m Happy (Caesar-Youmans)
Sun Ra, p; John Gilmore, ts; Ronnie Boykins, b; Clifford Jarvis, d.

3. Time After Time 1 (Cahn-Styne)
4. Time After Time 2 (Cahn-Styne)
Sun Ra, p; Walter Miller, tp; Ronnie Boykins, b; Clifford Jarvis, d.

5. Easy to Love (Porter)
6. Sunnyside Up (DeSylva-Brown)
Sun Ra, p; Walter Miller, tp; John Gilmore, ts; Ronnie Boykins, b; Clifford Jarvis, d.

7. Island in the Sun (Ra)
8. The Invisible Shield (Ra)
9. Janus (Ra)
Sun Ra, p, org, Mini-Moog syn; Marshall Allen, as, fl, picc; Danny Davis, as, acl;
John Gilmore, ts, perc; Danny Ray Thompson, bsn/ Neptunian libflecto/ lunatic fagott
(on The Invisible Shield), perc; Ben Henderson (Jaribu Shahid), b; Art Jenkins, ancestral African vocal and space voice (on Janus), other members of the band, bells and percussion.

Find it here:


Media Dream • Sun Ra and His Arkestra
El Saturn Records 19783 

Sun Ra, org, p, Crumar Mainman organ, drum box, etc.;
Michael Ray, tp; John Gilmore, ts; Luqman Ali, d.
Live in Italy, January 9, 1978

1. Saturn Research (Ra)
2. Constellation (Ra)
3. Yera of the Sun (Ra)
4. Media Dreams (Ra)
5. Twigs at Twilight (Ra)
6. An Unbeknowneth Love (Ra)

Find it here:


  1. Nice post and blog. Here is some info on the trumpeters you mention. When you say Abdullah Ibrahim I think you mean Ahmed Abdullah, who started playing with the Arkestra from the mid 1970s (Abdullah Ibrahim is the South African pianist originally known as Dollar Brand). Michael Ray started working with the Arkestra in around 1978 and it was probably him you saw playing while standing on one leg. Before joining Ra he worked exclusively in R&B bands and plays with Kool & The Gang to this day. Like Sonny, Walter Miller was from Birmingham and played with the Arkestra off and on starting in the early 1960s. He was a disciple of Dizzy Gillespie. Besides Ra he also spent time with Ray Charles. I would love to see a whole post on Bob Koester and Jazz Record Mart. I visited there (both locations) several times over the years and also knew Bob a bit.

    1. This is great info, africassette, and much appreciated. Of course I meant Ahmed Abdullah, not Dollar Brand. Dumb slip on my part. It must have been Mr. Ray I saw, though I later saw Abdullah in the Arkestra in New York. I'd be glad to do a little something about Bob K. and the Record Mart, but one thing bugs me. Do you remember the tall skinny fellow with the long wispy beard, always dressed in black, who was usually behind the counter? I've been trying to remember his name. This would have been in the mid-'70s.

  2. I only visited the store on a couple occasions when I was visiting Chicago and never knew anyone there except Bob K, who I first met here in Michigan. Steve Cushing, host of Blues Before Sunrise would most likely know who you're referring to.

    1. I used to listen to "Blues Before Sunrise" after midnight on WBEZ in Chicago. Great show! I didn't know Koester was ever in Michigan -- I thought he was from St. Louis or somewhere like that.

    2. Bob never lived in Michigan. I met him one summer back in the 70's when he was here with his family visiting Billy Thomas, who was a "record man". The last time I saw him was at the Detroit Jazz Festival. In between I visited him at his store and one time he took my friend and I to some blues clubs on the South side.

      Steve Cushing is still on the air and you can listen to him online. Great show indeed!

  3. Thank you XXXL for this post and the superb music by Le Sony'r Ra !