Sun Ra Arkestra meets Salah Ragab in Egypt

Golden Years of New Jazz / GY1

Sun Ra Arkestra, Cairo Jazz Band and Cairo Free Jazz Ensemble, featuring a cast of (almost) thousands.

This is one of the four debut releases of Leo’s new offshoot, “Golden Years of New Jazz”, a somewhat ironically-titled label whose intention is to remind us that free jazz has been around for a rather long time, that it’s a well-established genre with famous figures, classic recordings and, yes, “golden years”.

Vintage Sun Ra recordings spanning over a decade, and featuring large groups of local musicians as well as the Arkestra regulars, whose names history has fortunately (and unusually) recorded even though session dates, in some cases, have been lost. Here we have a track from 1971, three from the early to mid seventies and three from the mid eighties.

Salah Ragab’s compositional credit is a thread which crops up on four of these tracks separated by so many years; that and an intangibly Arabic influence to much of the music. I suppose that influence is of the order of cod-Arabic music of the sort Westerners write for film scores, and if Ra or, for that matter, Ragab had deep knowledge of Arabic idioms they’re deliberately subjugated to the funky, spaced-out world of jazz as only the Arkestra can do it.

These are mostly pretty hot sessions, and even the latest ones show none of the attachment to saccharine swing which Ra showed during that period. His keyboards create spikes of light in the rattling mayhem of up to ten percussionists. As you might expect, live recordings of such a big, loud band from the early 1970s aren’t going to be of magnificent quality, but the atmosphere’s all there.

The world pretty much divides into those who get Sun Ra and those who don’t. Although associated with free jazz, and too outre for mainstream acceptance, his big-band arrangements and tendency towards tunes and chord sequences tends to alienate the hardcore improv fan. What’s left is those of us who love Mingus, Rahsaan and the rest; the misfits who fell between hard bop and the avant garde.

It’s an interesting choice for GY1, but its historical sweep and the presence of previously unreleased tracks give it some sense. In the end, it’s a great issue of some wonderful material, unified by thematic concerns rather than a particular gig or lineup. That makes for one of the most satisfying albums to listen to end-to-end which this writer has come across bearing the Sun Ra name. Given the simply irresistable appeal of this stuff, it can be recommended to just about anyone. An excellent introduction to the man’s work, too. Richard Cochrane