July 5, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Monorails and Satellites (Evidence ECD 22013-2)

Recorded at Sun Studio, New York, NY prob. 1966
Originally released as El Saturn SR 509 in 1968
While Sun Ra is highly regarded as a pioneer of electric keyboards in jazz, his prodigious gifts as a pianist have largely been overlooked, obscured by and subsumed within the Arkestra’s overall musical activities. Monorails and Satellites is one of the very few solo piano recordings Ra ever made and it is a fascinating document of his instrumental technique and singular musical thinking. Ra does not possess a dazzling virtuosity, but he approaches the piano as an immense orchestra, full of vibrant colors and contrasting timbres. Like a child at play, Ra delights in the resonant rumbling of the lowest octaves and the plinking, chattering chimes of the highest notes above. But Ra’s two-hand independence is sometimes truly astonishing: each hand in a different meter, in a different key, ten fingers layering multiple outer and inner melodies to create complex rhythmic/harmonic webs. Ra’s touch is aggressive yet supple, achieving illusionistic “bent” note effects. In a 1991 interview with Keyboard magazine, Ra was asked if he could hear quarter tones, the notes “between the notes” on a piano:

Oh, yeah, I’m using these intervals. You see, the way you attack a note can create those effects. Depending on how hard you hit the key, you can hear the third or the fourth or the fifth – those sounds in the cracks – coming out. So the touch, the attack, is very important. When I hit a note, the undertones also sound. With the undertones and overtones blended, I can get quarter-tones. Not too many piano players have that touch. […] I sing that way too, dividing the octave into 24 or 36 steps, just like the Indian singers do. I’m doing world music (quoted in Szwed, p.240).
Aside from the delightfully swinging standard, “Easy Street,” all the compositions are Ra’s and you can hear him using the piano as a sketchbook for the Arkestra’s larger canvas. “Space Towers” pits an agitated bass ostinato against jumping chords and horn-like riffing. “Cogitation” spills out tumbling blocks of clashing harmonies. “Skylight” is a beautiful ballad form spiced with intensely pungent dissonances. “The Alter Destiny” begins with an ominous roar and builds up a brittle, herky-jerky rhythm only to melt into sentimental tunefulness. “Blue Differentials” is a classic Ra blues, bright, uptempo, maybe a little old fashioned. The rhapsodic “Monorails and Satellites” contrasts gently rolling arpeggios and glissandos with enervated, multivoiced counterpoint. Finally, “The Galaxy Way” sounds more through-composed than wholly improvised as it maps the entire compass of the instrument through a sequence of descending chords and fleeting melodies. In the end, this is far from your usual jazz piano album but it offers a rare glimpse into Ra’s most intimate music-making.


It’s too bad Evidence was unable to secure the rights to reissue Monorails and Satellites Vol.2 (released as El Saturn SR 519 in 1969), which contains additional solo piano music recorded at the same session (and would have easily fit on CD). Interestingly, “Astro Vision” opens with a bit of musique concrete with Ra’s sprightly piano set against sheets of howling electronic noise, generated by contact microphones and overdriven, distorted reverb (Boykins and Hunter are the likely suspects). It sounds to me like the effect was overdubbed after the fact, since Ra does not interact with it in any way and the noise eventually subsides some time before he finishes. Curious. The remainder of the album consists of four piano solos that are more expansive than on Vol.1, but also more diffuse. Several of the longer pieces reply upon an improvised, episodic construction that moves from ambiguous chordal statements through gentle ballad forms until finally evolving into furiously dissonant two-fisted attacks. “Solar Boats” is a little different and sounds more pre-arranged: Ra’s left hand sets up an off-kilter 5/4 groove while his right hand tosses off pan-tonal melodies and strident, widely-spaced chords. Vol.2 contains a great deal of dynamic pianism, but lacks Vol.1’s compact cohesiveness. Even so, it is well worth seeking out, if only for another opportunity to hear Sun Ra alone at the piano with his musical thoughts.


The radically experimental Strange Strings was also recorded around this time period; I wrote about Atavistic’s excellent reissue of this bizarre masterpiece here. Ra’s discography gets very confusing at this point, with various albums containing material recorded at different times and places, with a slew of singles thrown in to boot. This sort of confusion continues until well into the nineteen-seventies! I would like to continue my chronological examination of Sun Ra’s albums, but I fear that a weekly schedule will be almost impossible to maintain. Just sorting out what is where will take some time. So expect some more YouTube videos in lieu of writing as I sort things out!

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