November 30, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Solar Arkestra: Other Planes of There (Evidence 22037 CD)
Recorded in New York City, 1964
Originally released as El Saturn LP 206 (1966)

My music is the music of precision…Actually, I don’t play free music, because there is no freedom in the universe. If you were to be free you could just play no matter what and it doesn’t come back to you. But you see, it always does come back to you. That’s why I warn my musicians to be careful what you play…every note, every beat, be aware that it comes back to you. And if you play something you yourself don’t understand, then that’s bad for you and for the people too.
-- Sun Ra (quoted in Szwed, John, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (Pantheon) (p. 235-236)

The title track to Other Planes of There marks the first recorded appearance of extended group improvisation by the Arkestra but, as indicated above, this is anything but “free jazz.” Sun Ra was deeply suspicious of the notion of freedom, remarking that the only free person was in the graveyard (id. p.309). In all of his work, he stressed the importance of discipline over freedom. At the height of the civil rights movement in 1968, he flatly stated: “Don’t be fooled, talking about revolutin’…what the white race got to revolute against? They got everything. That’s not for you. Not no revoluting for black people, no freedom, no peace. They need unity, precision and discipline” (id. p.100).

The twenty-two minute piece opens with a long, portentously held space chord declaimed by the entire ensemble but then immediately gives way to a series of small sub-group and solo episodes whose entrances and exits are cued by Ra at the piano; his own ruminations vary from lushly harmonic voicings that vaguely hint at some forgotten jazz standard to interlocking atonal arpeggios that foreshadow Cecil Taylor’s work a couple years later. At one point, a trombone choir improvises antiphonally amidst pealing trumpet and honking baritone sax. The next minute, Marshall Allen solos on his snake-charming oboe. Heat and energy levels increase as John Gilmore’s squalling tenor saxophone rides waves of skittering percussion and roiling piano figures but then subsides, leaving a stuttering trombone to solo before the return of massed space chords that herald the climaxing ensemble improvisations. With a flourish, the piece decisively ends. While lacking any overt themes or chord progressions beyond the thickly voiced space chords, “Other Planes of There” is organically structured, contemplative, and at times sounds more like modern chamber music than the unrelenting “energy music” that was/is propagated by many proponents of “free jazz.” For Sun Ra, meaningful freedom meant the imposition of severe limits.

“Sound Spectra/Spec Sket” is another, less ambitious attempt at group improvisation. After establishing a chugging drumset groove over which Walter Miller’s trumpet lazily sings, Sun Ra’s piano abruptly enters with a contrary and agitated rhythm that is extended with the addition of bass and yet more percussion. Before anything else is able to happen, all the instruments drop out and a reverb-drenched drum solo pitter-pats thoughtfully until the piece comes to a sudden, inconclusive end.

“Sketch” brings us back to the world of straight-ahead, bop-influenced jazz with a small-group rhythm section backing John Gilmore’s throaty saxophone. But things are not quite what they seem, having returned from an interplanetary voyage. Artificial reverb ebbs and flows across the soundfield, giving the proceedings a constantly shifting, otherworldly sheen. Sun Ra’s first piano solo quickly turns disjointed and dissonant and Gilmore’s subtly explores the shrieks and howls of multiphonics over the rapidly modulating chord progression. Then, the almost hokey ching-ching-a-ching of the cymbal signals a conventionally old fashioned solo from Ra before the reverb retreats and the Arkestra finally enters to state the theme behind Gilmore’s lead. Fascinating.

“Pleasure” seems even more old-timey with Pat Patrick’s breathy baritone saxophone sounding as buttery smooth and romantic as Harry Carney. Yet an element of strangeness pervades. As Neil Tesser puts in his liner notes: “Very odd, very peaceful, the piece seems to have wafted out of some hip but unpretentious lounge on, say, Venus.” Quite so. Also quite beautiful.

“Spiral Galaxy” concludes the album with a loping space waltz, full of pounding percussion and braying horns, all slathered with a hefty helping of artificial reverberation. Solos come and go, sometimes forcefully, sometimes merely lurking in the background. At times, the distortion threatens to overwhelm the music altogether but then the reverb knob is suddenly dialed back, revealing the naked Arkestra, choogling along comfortably. So it goes for ten or so minutes, leaving the listener quietly unsettled. Of course, this kind of electronically driven disorientation would be taken up years later in the “dub” music of Jamaican reggae but, again, Sun Ra was truly ahead of his time – a man from the future.

Other Planes of There is a landmark album in Sun Ra’s considerable discography. For the first time, Sun Ra combined pure freedom with rigorous discipline while also maintaining a genuine connection to a deep tradition and thereby producing music of startling originality. Essential.

No comments: