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Sun Ra : Celebration for the Comet Kohoutek

A lot of people I know-serious listeners and musicians whose opinions I respect-absolutely adore Sun Ra. As for me, I tasted but never actually drank the Kool-Aid. While much of his early stuff is undeniably great, I’ve long had reservations about his later work, which frequently gave his composing and arranging short shrift. Writing was what Sun Ra did best. When the Arkestra relied too heavily on collective improvisation, the results were hit and miss.

Concert for the Comet Kohoutek was a miss. Recorded at New York’s Town Hall in Dec. 1973, the album is a poorly recorded, nearly unintelligible muddle. A tone is set early: collective anarchy interspersed by paeans to the wondrousness of “space” loping vamps over which all manner of improvisational gold and dross exist simultaneously. On the plus side, two things stand out. First, Sun Ra’s unhinged work on analog synthesizer (probably the Minimoog prototype that inventor Bob Moog “loaned” him a few years earlier); if this were the only recorded example of his synthesizer work, his credentials as a pioneering sound scientist would be secure. Second, there’s the excitement generated by the group’s multiple-percussion attack. You can barely hear it thanks to mic overload, but the rhythm section cooks like a mutha. Soloists emerge from the miasma, then return. A few are easily ID’d. Alto saxophonist Marshall Allen’s trademark cat-with-its-tail-in-a-blender yowl is omnipresent. Tenor saxophonist John Gilmore and vocalist June Tyson are there as well. A trombonist whom I surmise is Dick Griffin blows down the house on “Kohoutek.” There are good moments, but the overall effect is disappointing. Enjoying it requires a suspension of disbelief (always a prerequisite when dealing with Sun Ra) and a lowering of critical standards beyond where I’m willing to go.

Springtime in Chicago, on the other hand, is easy to recommend. Recorded live in 1978, the two-disc set documents a performance that is better than Comet’s on every level. The grooves are heavier. The ensembles cohere. Whereas on Comet there was an overabundance of crosstalk, here the soloists give each other room. There are a number of exceptional spots, many the responsibility of John Gilmore. The energy and passion Gilmore exudes on “The Shadow World” is superhuman. His lines are tortuous, but they’re not just complex for complexity’s sake. His work melds chops and emotion with perfection, more or less. The other improvisers are also superb. Brilliant solo follows brilliant solo in successive episodes of inspired one-upsmanship. Perhaps most importantly, Ra’s arranging is front-and-center. “Big John’s Special” is a kicking example of the band’s vaunted ability to channel Fletcher Henderson. Versions of “Over the Rainbow,” “King Porter Stomp” and “Body and Soul” are also delightful, and give us valuable perspective on the group’s free-jazz stuff. These guys’ roots grew deep. Where Comet shrieks, Springtime shouts, and that’s a good thing for true believers and skeptics alike.

Originally Published