Can This Be Love - 6.00
Sometimes I'm Happy - 6.45
Time After Time - 3.30
Easy To Love - 3.27
Sunnysude Up - 3.34
But Not For Me - 6.42
Sun Ra (1914 - 1993) had a healthy regard for the jazz tradition. Anyone who heard his Arkestra from the mid-1970s onward knows that Fletcher Henderson numbers from the 1930s like "Yeah Man!" and "King Porter Stomp," with arrangements (and sometimes solos) transcribed right off the records, were featured nightly. But Sunny and the Arkestra were playing and recording jazz standards well before this time. It's just that Sun Ra wanted his Saturn records, which he and Alton Abraham were putting out independently at considerable expense, to feature his own compositions first. Consequently, Sun Ra did not release any of his performances of standards until 1972, by which time some of them were more than a decade old.
"Can This Be Love?" is a duet recorded in Sunny's Chicago apartment during the days when, after experimenting for a few years with various-sized ensembles to play his experimental music, he was putting his Arkestra together. His partner is the famous Chicago bassist Wilbur Ware (1922 - 1979), for whom Sunny always had a high regard (in 1973, when everyone involved had relocated to Philadelphia, Ware visited the House of Ra on Morton Street and jammed with members of the Arkestra in a performance that is preserved on tape). Ra plays pretty and Ware gets in a substantial solo.
The other selections on this CD come from Ra's musically fertile but financially disappointing early years in New York City (the Arkestra had wound up there in October 1961 after a few months in Montreal). With the help of drummer Tommy Hunter (1927-1999), who also engineered these sessions on his battered Ampex tape machine, Sunny and the band found a reliable rehearsal space at the Choreographers' Workshop; from late 1961 through 1964, the rehearsal rooms also served them as an informal recording venue. Until the beginning of 1966, live performance opportunities for an avant-garde ensemble like the Arkestra were terribly sparse, and calls from other record companies were nonexistent, so these sessions became Ra's main opportunity to preserve his music.
Sunny still enjoyed programming standards, though, and several of the sessions at the Choreographers Workshop were given over to them. "Sometimes I'm Happy" was made toward the end of 1962 or the beginning of 1963, during a highly productive period for the Arkestra. "Sometimes I'm Happy" was probably made at the same session as some of the wilder fare for which Sunny was known (perhaps "When Sun Comes Out"). Here, though, Sunny just wanted to relax and play a favorite tune. After Sunny's unaccompanied, rubato-laden prelude, the piece belongs to John Gilmore (1931-1995). John's tenor saxophone solo is a lyrical tribute to his first idol, Lester Young, who memorably recorded "Sometimes I'm Happy" for Keynote in 1943. The drumming sounds like the work of Lex Humphries (1934-1990), a Philadelphia-based musician who occasionally participated in the Arkestra from 1962 to 1971. Sunny and the Arkestra would record "Sometimes I'm Happy" again in 1982, with a vocal by June Tyson and another classic solo from John.
The other four standards all stem from another session that took place during the same period. Sun Ra had left several excellent trumpet players back in Chicago when he arrived in New York, and he had trouble finding replacements. While brass players of the caliber of Al Evans, Eddie Gale, and Clifford Thornton appear on Arkestra recordings from 1962, none of them were available on a regular basis. But toward the end of the year an unexpected opportunity arose. A musician from Sunny's home town, Walter Miller (1917- ) took a job with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra that frequently brought him to New York City between 1962 and 1966. Sunny couldn't pretend to be from Saturn when Walter Miller was around; they had both attended Industrial High School in Birmingham, Alabama. What's more, both had worked in bands led by local music mentor John T. "Fess" Whatley, and Walter Miller had played trumpet in the Sonny Blount Orchestra (he was in the last edition of this Swing band, which broke up in January 1946 when Sunny bought a one-way train ticket to Chicago). Miller was listening carefully to musical developments in the 1940s, and came to model his approach on the bebop acrobatics of his exact contemporary, Dizzy Gillespie. But he had family obligations that prevented him from leaving the Birmingham area, and by the early 1960s most Birmingham musicians knew him only as the pianist in a local bar.
Realizing that Walter Miller had lost none of this trumpet technique, and that he was willing to push beyond bebop into regions farther out, Sun Ra scheduled recording dates whenever his favorite trumpet player was in town. The last four standards on this CD appear to have been recorded at the same session (judging from the sonics, the first version of Sunny's "Dancing Shadows" was cut on the same day). For the occasion, Sun Ra put together a quintet with Miller, Gilmore, stalwart bassist Ronnie Boykins (1932-1980), and drumming phenom Clifford Jarvis (1942-1999). This was also Jarvis's first recording with the Arkestra; recognizing his musical gifts, especially his ability to supply rhythmic inspiration to John Gilmore, Sun Ra would put up with the drummer's massive ego and combative attitudes for many years. The lineup that Sunny had assembled for this session would, in fact, have been entirely competitive on one of the bigger jazz record labels of the time, had Sunny been interested in going that route.
"Time after Time" is played quite a bit more briskly than usual; it gets characteristic Ra arrangements for the opening statement and the out-chorus. Walter Miller is the soloist and Clifford Jarvis gives a drum clinic in his support. The Arkestra would re-record "Time after Time" in 1990.
"Easy to Love" features John Gilmore, whose solo is full of reminders that the impossible leaps of "Dancing Shadows" were committed to tape that same day. The out chorus includes a wispy trumpet commentary by Walter Miller. For reasons unknown, Ra rarely programmed this tune again.
Ra was naturally partial to titles that made reference to the sun--or to other heavenly bodies. He had included the perky "Keep Your Sunny Side Up" on a June 1960 session in Chicago and would feature it again on a live recording from 1974. At this fast tempo, Jarvis opens; there is a tight chorus featuring Gilmore and Miller; then solos by John Gilmore, Ronnie Boykins, Gilmore again, and Walter Miller.
"But Not for Me" is a previously unknown version of a piece that Sun Ra featured for years. (He used to complain in interviews that Ahmad Jamal's hit version from 1958 was stolen from him--not at all plausibly, if you compare Jamal's piano stylings to any of Ra's). His first recording of the piece had been done two years earlier in Chicago, on the same session as his first version of "Keep Your Sunnyside Up"; the 1960 rendition uses a bigger front line and a quite different arrangement. He would record "But Not for Me" again in 1986, though the released version is a pale shadow of some of the live performances from that year. Here Sunny solos on piano after the opening chorus (in the somewhat drier manner typical of his early New York period), there are solos by John Gilmore and Walter Miller, then after a quick interlude for the piano, we get some honest-to-goodness trades: between Gilmore and Jarvis, between Miller and Jarvis, between Gilmore and Miller, etc., before the nicely arranged out-chorus. Trades were widely employed during the bebop era, and not much favored by Sun Ra, but one of the great live performances of "But Not for Me" (from Dayton, Ohio, February 9, 1986) features tenor sax trades between John Gilmore and Ronald Wilson--maybe in unconscious homage to this 1962 recording?
Now that we're entering the 21st century and so much of Sun Ra's legacy is on CD, there's no longer any reason to fear that Sun Ra's distinctive renditions of standards will induce anyone to ignore his huge portfolio of original compositions. Nowadays, performances like these can be equally enjoyed by hard-core Ra aficionados and lovers of more traditional jazz.
Robert L. Campbell
Robert L. Campbell is the co-author, with Chris Trent, of *The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra* (2nd edition, 2000, published by Cadence Jazz Books).