May 3, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Vol.1 (ESP-Disk’ 1014)

Recorded at RLA Studio, New York, NY on April 20, 1965

By March of 1965, Gilmore was back in the fold and in April the Arkestra headed into RLA Studio to record their first LP for ESP-Disk’. Buoyed by the modest successes of the October Revolution and the prospect of wider recognition offered by the fledgling but ambitious record label, Ra expanded upon the experimentation of the Choreographer’s Workshop period to make Heliocentric Worlds Vol.1 a defining statement.

Consisting mostly of the kinds of conducted improvisations that Ra had been developing over the past year or so, Heliocentric Worlds Vol.1 retains a similarly ultra-modern chamber music feel throughout. Often the highest and lowest registers of the ensemble are emphasized with piercing trumpet and piccolo set off in stark relief against the rumblings of trombone, bass trombone, baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, tympani, bass, and Ra himself on bass marimba (!). At other times, Ra plays piano and electric celeste simultaneously with stunning two-handed polyphony or the horns improvise wildly swinging anti-bop figures. But the music is more about contrasting textures than solos and accompaniment and there is a remarkable diversity of material approaches in each piece: densely orchestrated “space chords” rise and fall, percussion pounds or falls back, horn solos come and go in an instant. The music is dissonant and intense one minute, serene and contemplative the next. Even so, the music sustains a consistently mysterious mood, an air of tense expectancy that makes the diverse strains of out-and-out weirdness cohere into a enormously compelling, vibrant whole.

While the music appears to be totally improvised, Ra is clearly in control. Regarding these sessions, Marshall Allen described Ra’s approach to conducted improvisation:

Sun Ra would go to the studio and he would play something, the bass would come in, and if he didn’t like it he’d stop it, and he’d give the drummer a particular rhythm, tell the bass he wanted not a “boom boom boom” but something else, and then he’d begin to try out the horns, we’re all standing therewondering what’s next…

I just picked up the piccolo and worked with what was going on, what moods they set, or what feeling they had. A lot of things we’d be rehearsing and we did the wrong things and Sun Ra stopped the arrangement and changed it. Or he would change the person who was playing the particular solo, so that changes the arrangement. So the one that was soloing would get another part given to him personally. ‘Cos he knew people. He could understand what you could do better so he would fit that with what he would tell you
(quoted in Szwed, p. 216).

Despite Gilmore’s brief defection and return, the Arkestra executes Ra’s vision of disciplined freedom with dedication and astonishing precision. As Szwed points out, “[t]he Arkestra at this point had such confidence in what they were doing that the rest of the group could suddenly drop away in the moment to reveal a cymbal solo or a bass and tympani duo” (Id.). Horns resolutely enter and exit with succinct, emphatic statements that move the music inexorably forward (or outward) while the rhythm section ebbs and flows in natural reaction (or in deliberate opposition). Throughout it all, Ra provides deft direction, through his playing and by signaling his intentions to the musicians. No note is wasted. There are no empty gestures or tossed off cliches. The music is not merely episodic as Ra builds complex yet satisfyingly unified edifices upon the accretion of discrete, semi-autonomous events. As many times as I’ve listened to this record, it always sounds fresh, revealing deeper insights with each listen. All of my attempts at a track-by-track analysis have been woefully inadequate to elucidate the elusive magic of The Heliocentric Worlds. The music simply defies my meager descriptions and must be experienced to be even remotely (mis)understood.

Heliocentric Worlds Vol. 1 is rightfully considered a landmark recording and belongs in every serious record collection. It has remained pretty much consistently available (either legitimately or on bootleg editions) since the day it was released and its appearance transformed Sun Ra from the obscure Lower East Side eccentric into his rightful role as the globe-trotting emissary of interplanetary music. Heliocentric Worlds, Vol. 1 is, in a word, a masterpiece, but just one of a series of extraordinary recordings that Ra would make during this period.

Then another tomorrow
They never told me of
Came with the abruptness
Of a fiery dawn
And spoke of Cosmic Equations:
The equations of sight-similarity
The equations of sound-similarity

Subtle Living Equations
Clear only to those
Whose wish is to be attuned
To the vibrations
Of the Outer Cosmic Worlds.

Subtle living equations
Of the outer-realms
Dear only to those
Who wish fervently the greater life.

-- Sun Ra, 1965

1 comment:

Sam said...

Yes! A strange, brooding masterpiece. I love this comment: "Horns resolutely enter and exit with succinct, emphatic statements that move the music inexorably forward (or outward) while the rhythm section ebbs and flows in natural reaction (or in deliberate opposition)"--like the universe expanding and contracting.

Here's what I wrote for the album-by-album thread: Yes, Heliocentric vol. 1 is particularly dark, brooding, and oblique, almost impenetrable in its foreboding mystery. It can be really hard to get a handle on just what you're listening to, and when it's over, you wonder where you've been. I think this is a major aspect of its beauty. It's a dark, ominous tone poem on the emptiness of outer space. The album as a whole is an excellent example of Ra's method of guided improvisation, and he takes full advantage of the studio setting to utilize the dark, low tones of the tympani, bass clarinet, and bowed bass, using those elements to evoke deepest space. A sea of darkness, where there is no sun. Abstraction taken to a new level.

Particular highlights for me include:
--John Gilmore's beautiful lonely space solo in "Outer Nothingness"
--Sun Ra's Cecil-mode piano playing in "Other Worlds"
--Gilmore's solo in the final short track, "Dancing in the Sun," as the album's journey ends as we enter our solar system again, and see the sun