May 17, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Solar Arkestra: Heliocentric Worlds, Vol.2 (ESP-Disk’ 1017)

Recorded at RLA Sound Studios, New York, NY November 16, 1965
Originally released in 1966

Less than seven months after recording Heliocentric Worlds Vol.1, a smaller, eight-piece Arkestra returned to RLA Sound Studios to record Volume 2. “The Sun Myth” is another epic-length directed improvisation based upon a two-note figure that is freely extrapolated by the ensemble across eighteen highly variegated minutes. Anchored throughout by Boykins’s sliding, microtonal bass, Ra starts out by banging on tuned bongos and a cymbal before moving to the piano/Clavioline combo. Energy and intensity levels rise and fall with brief horn solos, duets, and trios that come and go, always yielding to the buzzing Clavioline and singing arco bass. According to Campbell, this track has been mastered three different ways:

(1) The original release (mono and stereo) had African singing throughout the piece, mixed as loud as the instrumental parts […] (2) The original release was quickly withdrawn and replaced with a more common variant in which the African voices are mixed way down and can be faintly heard at the beginning and end […] (3) The final remastering removed the African voices entirely (2nd ed. p. 122).
Interesting! Were these vocals added in some kind of primitive overdub? After all, this album was recorded in a low-budget studio in 1965! I have only ever heard the final, instrumental version and I can’t even imagine what this track would sound like with “African vocals.”

“A House of Beauty” is a strangely beautiful piece. It opens with Marshall Allen on silvery piccolo and Ra on the monophonic Clavioline. Boykins enters with the bow while Ra adds a fourth voice on piano. Eventually, piano and pizzicato bass improvise a lushly tonal ballad form supported by some soft percussion. Clavioline and piccolo return with some busy free-tempo counterpoint until a held Clavioline tone and arco bass figures bring things to a gentle close. The album ends with the aptly-titled “Cosmic Chaos,” a fifteen-minute New Thing-styled group improv punctuated with virtuosic acappella turns by Pat Patrick on baritone saxophone, Gilmore on tenor saxophone and Robert Cummings on bass clarinet. Ra is back on tuned bongos and cymbal, generating complex polyrhythms against Roger Blank’s roiling trap drums while Walter Miller blows some exciting post-bop trumpet. Curiously, what sounds to me like electronically processed bells peal in the background throughout. What is making that sound?! Is it Tommy Hunter’s echo-machine? The piece decisively ends with a grouping of obviously conducted “space chords.”

Ultimately, Heliocentric Worlds Vol.2 is a bit less focused and not quite as compelling as either Vol.1 or The Magic City, but it still retains an air of mysterious discovery. The album cover, on the other hand, is a classic of the period with an antique illustration of the solar system perched above pictures of archaic scientists: Leonardo, Copernicus, Galileo, and Tycho Brahe. In the middle are portraits of Pythagoras and Sun Ra himself, “calling attention to Sun Ra’s links to the Greek astronomer-mathematician-musician who studied in Egypt, and who formed a brotherhood which attempted to purify their souls to allow the initiates to escape the ‘wheel of birth’ and to aid them in the transmigration of the soul after the death of the body” (Szwed p.217). Perfect!

1 comment:

Sam said...

Actually, when it comes down to it I think I prefer Vol. 2 to Vol. 1, precisely because of its higher level of energy and intensity. I love Boykins' work on the opening of "The Sun Myth," and Gilmore's solo about 5 minutes in is Gilmore at his spaciest--very abstract, and very beautiful. I've never heard either version with the African voices (were they actual Africans, or members of the Arkestra a la "Ancient Aethiopia"?). Overall, Boykins is the clear standout of both volumes, and his work here, along with "Astro Black," remains his finest playing.

I'll have to go back with the headphones for a closer listening to the bell sounds in "Cosmic Chaos"--not sure what you're referring to.