February 15, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Myth Science Arkestra: Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow (Evidence ECD 22036) (1992)

Recorded at the Choreographer’s Workshop, NYC, 1961-1962.
Originally released as Saturn 9956 (1965).

Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow tacks on two leftover tracks from 1961’s Bad & Beautiful recording session but mostly consists of a 1962 rehearsal recorded in the basement of the Choreographer’s Workshop where there was a good piano and better acoustics. The sound quality is notably improved even if the source tape for this CD is significantly degraded. More importantly, Ra’s music is clearly moving in a new, exciting direction. Drummer/recordist Tommy Hunter had been recording rehearsals on his Apex reel-to-reel and accidentally discovered the feedback/echo effect that appears here for the first time. So while Bad & Beautiful was a somewhat traditional jazz combo album full of show tunes and semi-conventional Ra originals, Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow lives up to its title, moving forward into the kind of experimental avant garde music that would cement Ra’s reputation in the 1960s and 70s while also retaining a connection to the living tradition that would continue to center the Arkestra’s aesthetic throughout its career. To paraphrase Michael Shore’s comment in the liner notes to this Evidence CD, if Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy is a Rosetta Stone, then Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow is Ra beginning to carve it in earnest.

“Cluster of Galaxies” is a brief but portentous opening with its spacey “thunder drums,” “sun harp,” and “spiral percussion gong” all drenched in thick cosmic echo and reverb. Afro-psychedelia starts right here – in 1962! P-Funk mastermind George Clinton once remarked, “[Sun Ra] was definitely out to lunch – the same place I eat at!” (quoted in Szwed, p. 264). Shifting gears, the next track is another remake of “Ankh” which originally appeared in a more florid arrangement in 1956 on the Delmark LP, Sound of Joy and more recently on Bad & Beautiful. This composition was obviously important to Ra and the various renditions are fascinatingly diverse. Here, baritone saxophonist Pat Patrick shares solo space with a rare appearance by Ali Hassan on trombone. The mood is brighter, less ominous than usual with some funky gospel handclaps supporting the lumbering riffs. “Solar Drums” is another brief space-out featuring echoing drums, small percussion, bells and faintly tinkling piano. The hissing feed back ebbs and flows across the sonic landscape, sometimes threatening to overwhelm everything until Tommy Hunter suddenly turns a knob, bringing things back into focus.

The next two tracks appear to be Ra’s earliest experiments with a new kind of form: loosely structured, non-idiomatic, conducted improvisation. This is a form that Ra would expand and perfect as the decade proceeded, resulting in such masterpieces as Other Planes of There and The Magic City (Evidence ECD 22069). With its total absence of drums, atonal piano, and knotty contrapuntal horn lines, “The Outer Heavens” sounds more like contemporary classical chamber music than big band jazz and points the way to the later music of the AACM and Anthony Braxton. In contrast, a barrage of ceremonial drums and percussion dominates “Infinity of the Universe” with Ra agitatedly rumbling around in the piano’s lowest registers. Michael Shore points out in the liner notes that: “his repeated bass-clef piano runs mark the first appearance of what would, in a few years, turn into the launch pad for one of his greatest pieces, ‘The Shadow World.’” I think that’s correct and a fascinating insight into Ra’s working methods. Towards the end, the horns enter with fleeting and plaintive cries over the increasingly pounding percussion before the track quickly fades to silence.

The album closes with the two orphaned tracks from the Bad & Beautiful sessions and a return to its cool, swinging combo mode. “Lights on a Satellite” was originally recorded in Chicago in 1960 but unreleased until 1965 on Fate in a Pleasant Mood (Evidence ECD 22068). The version here eschews the ornamental flute obbligato and becomes a soulful ballad vehicle for Ra’s Monkish piano. Unfortunately, the track fades out prematurely just as Gilmore begins to blow. “Kosmos in Blue” is a typical Ra blues, bouncy and maybe a little old fashioned rhythmically, but full of dissonant voicings and an unpredictable, disjointed harmonic structure. Gilmore’s tenor saxophone solo stands out for its stately reserve and concise eloquence.


As we proceed to move chronologically through the Choreographer’s Workshop recordings, next up would be Secrets of the Sun , the first really mature work of the period. But from there to Cosmic Tones, the discography get a little murky – Sam, I think I’ll need your help sorting these out! Please drop me a line!


Sam said...

I'm here to help! :) I'll send you an email.

As always, Rodger, another insightful Sun Ra Sunday. Your writing always sends me back to the music!

Sam said...

Did my comment ever make it through? I'm still getting a handle on this whole Internet thing. Anyway, like I said, great job on the continuing series, and I'll drop you an email.

Rodger Coleman said...

Sam --
Due to an influx of spam, I moderate the comments. Sometimes it takes a while...
Looks like the next CD to examine is "Out There a Minute!"