May 31, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Heliocentric Worlds Vol.3: The Lost Tapes (ESP-Disk’ 4002)

In 2005, ESP-Disk’ released Heliocentric Worlds Vol.3: The Lost Tapes, purported to be unreleased material recorded at the November 16, 1965 session that produced Heliocentric Worlds Vol.2. After some close listening, I am pretty certain this date is incorrect, although some of this material might have been recorded at the April 20th session for Heliocentric Worlds, Vol.1 (but then again, maybe not). Confusing? Yes! But these are the eternal mysteries of Mr. Ra! Nevertheless, the discovery of previously unheard music from the nineteen-sixties makes this CD essential listening for the Ra-fanatic.

“Intercosmosis” is another expansive, 18-minute conducted improvisation wherein Gilmore establishes a terse melodic cell that is subsequently passed around the Arkestra in small concertino groupings punctuated with acappella horn solos and cued “space chords.” Meanwhile, the rhythm section lays down a propulsive free-tempo groove that enters and exits on cue – but the percussion is mostly held in reserve so that the relentless motion is internalized and carried forward by the chamber-music-like instrumentation. Ra plays densely arpeggiated piano throughout and the piece climaxes with an extended alto saxophone duel between Marshall Allen and Danny Davis which gives way to an almost-pretty piano interlude, with Pat Patrick blowing beautiful, breathy baritone saxophone. The rest of the ensemble enters with an improvised coda before a conducted ending. Was this recorded on November 16th? Admittedly, the piece shares a conceptual similarity to “The Sun Myth,” but the unmistakable presence of Danny Davis is troubling since he is not audible on the other Heliocentric Worlds Vol.2 material. Also conspicuously absent is the Selmer Clavioline, whose electronic whine defined the sound of that album. Finally, the presence of subtle reverb effects suggests the presence of Tommy Hunter, which would require an earlier recording date. Some have speculated this track was recorded at one of the When Angels Speak of Love sessions and, further, that When Angels Speak of Love was recorded later than 1963 as posited by Prof. Campbell. Who knows? Regardless, it is classic long-form Ra material.

It is plausible that the remainder of the CD was recorded at the April 20th session, with Ra on bass marimba, piano, and electric celeste and the prominence of trombones and tympani. The fragmentary “Mythology Metamorphosis” opens with tumultuous trap drums and hand percussion to which Boykins adds some thrumming bass. Ra enters on the bass marimba while Marshall Allen plays sinuous oboe. The instruments drop out leaving Ra to rumble around on the bass marimba until Boykins enters with an insistent bass figure to which Allen replies with a brief oboe phrase. At the four-minute mark, clattering percussion re-enters just before the track cuts off. “Heliocentric Worlds” is a showcase for Ra’s orchestral piano and electric celeste playing with only bass, trap drums and booming tympani to provide intermittently dramatic accompaniment. “World Worlds” is an interesting ballad form, obviously rigorously composed (if somewhat raggedly performed). After a piano/celeste introduction with bowed bass pedal, thick blocks of dissonant chords blare forth from the full ensemble, rich with trombones, saxophones, flute, and trumpet. Over a gently swinging pulse, brief solo statements hew closely to the weirdly shifting chord changes until the big, held ensemble chords return with a brassy trumpet lead to end. After repeated listenings, this piece sounds vaguely familiar – was it ever recorded again under a different title?

The final track, “Interplanetary Travelers” is actually an alternate take of “Other Worlds” from Heliocentric Worlds Vol.1 which first appeared on the 1989 Blast First compilation, Out There a Minute. However, Prof. Campbell dates this to the April-May 1965 session that yielded side-2 of The Magic City, creating yet more discographical confusion. In any event, this track is a stunner, a full-throttled New Thing-style blowout with lots of two-fisted piano/celeste action, intensely wailing horns, and hard-driving drums. Is it possible that Heliocentric Worlds Vol.1, side-2 of The Magic City and tracks 2-5 of Heliocentric Worlds Vol.3 were all recorded at the same session on April 20, 1965? For that matter, is it possible that When Angels Speak of Love was also recorded during this time period? The stylistic resemblances are striking and, taken together, all of this music demonstrates how intently Ra was developing his composed improvisational approach in the mid-nineteen-sixties. Heliocentric Worlds Vol.3 adds another fascinating piece to the puzzle, yet ultimately raises more questions than it answers.

1 comment:

Sam said...

Excellent analysis of this superb release. The record seems to have raised many questions regarding dating, style, personnel, etc. But there's no question that the music is brilliant. It boggles my mind that it took this long to be released--better late than never!