Sun Ra: Duke Ellington’s Sound of Space

Dear patrons in attendance at The Bottom Line on the night of February 17, 1987: shut up, won't you?
Sun Ra
Duke Ellington's Sound of Space
Squatty Roo

This recording of Sun Ra and his 21st Century Alter-Destiny Arkestra performing an all-Ellington set in early 1987 is, to say the least, a little crude. Captured at The Bottom Line in New York City, Duke Ellington’s Sound of Space‘s overall quality places it in the hall of amusing bootlegs. It was already a well known fact that Sun Ra worshiped at the throne of the Duke. The pianist, composer, and bandleader even tracked down Ellington to ask him to take a look at one of his own original scores. So it would have been nice if, when giving a concert paying tribute to one of his musical heroes, someone had the foresight to capture Sun Ra’s set properly. Instead, Duke Ellington’s Sound of Space is, for perverse reasons, kind of funny.

“Perdido” is used to start the night. One of the saxophonists, either Eloe Omoe, Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, Danny Ray Thompson, or John Gilmore, is playing the lead alongside one of the trumpeters, either Ahmed Abdullah or Michael Ray. The saxophone sounds like it’s playing directly into its microphone while the trumpet sounds like it’s a good distance away from its corresponding microphone. A few obtrusive audio bumps and scrapes later, Earl “Buster” Smith enters with a snappy beat on the drum set. Before that, the sax and the trumpet were playing the main figure to “Perdido” to a very loose pulse. After Smith takes over, things are slightly better. There is soft muttering of either a patron or a sound engineer close to the end of the track. Just before Smith performs his concluding roll on the snare, there is a moist cough that comes across just as loudly as the band.

After “Perdido” is a track plainly named “Drum Solo/Group Improvisation/Ra’s Entrance”. The improvisation section begins when a snake charming-like melody begins to sway over a steady conga or bongo beat. It sounds like it could be an oboe or a soprano sax, though no one gets credit for either one of those instruments. As it plays, it sounds like someone had to rectify a microphone situation. So without warning, that melody is suddenly louder. The entrance portion of the track descends into a racket. And just before Sun Ra begins the opening lines of “East St. Louis Toodle-oo”, we’re treated to another cough somewhere in the club.

“I didn’t think he had chops like that anymore. I haven’t heard him play like this in years.” This is some club chatter you get to hear while Sun Ra is soloing over “Satin Doll”, spoken too clearly and too closely to the recording source for the listener to ignore. There’s even more chit-chat as he solos to “Sophisticated Lady”, but it’s low enough that you can’t make it but just barely loud enough that you still can’t fully ignore it. When I first heard it, I couldn’t help but wonder If you haven’t heard him play like this in years, then how about you just shut up and listen?

Duke Ellington’s Sound of Space is just rough all over. June Tyson is credited for vocals, but I never hear anyone singing. Bruce Edwards is credited for electric guitar on the second track, yet the only track to feature electric guitar is track 3, “East St. Louis Toodle-oo”. I’m tempted to say that the 21st Century Alter-Destiny Arkestra is in sloppy but enthusiastic shape, but it’s difficult to tell where shoddy recording practices end and sloppy performances begin. One thing is for sure, this gig definitely could have been captured in a better way. But as the Despair.com poster for MISTAKES reads, “It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”

RATING 5 / 10