July 15, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Solo Piano, Volume 1 (Improvising Artists CD)

Better known for his electronic experiments, Sun Ra never really got his due as a pianist, even though he was an obviously gifted player with deep roots in the jazz tradition. Prior to 1977, the only solo piano albums Sonny had ever recorded were the impossibly obscure El Saturn LPs, Monorails & Satellites Volumes 1 & 2, released in a minuscule editions a decade earlier—but the recondite material and low-fi sound offered a mere glimpse into Sonny’s wide-ranging keyboard technique. As we've seen, however, extended piano breaks were cropping up during live performances in the late-‘70s, if an instrument was available to him. (For an excellent example, take a listen to the brilliantly virtuosic introduction to “Take The A-Train” found Live At Montreux recorded on July 9, 1976). Of course, insiders knew what he what Sun Ra was capable of: 
Though many recognized him as capable of playing bombastically, and of using the piano for color, few thought of his as a major player. But Paul Bley, one of the two or three leading pianists of free jazz, believed Sonny was a great piano player, so great that he didn’t need a band. If anything, he felt, the band was a cover for his insecurity. Early in 1977 Bley convinced Sonny to do a series of piano duo performances with him in New York and Europe and to record for Bley’s new audio and video company, Improvising Artists (Szwed p.343). 
On May 20, Sonny entered Manhattan’s Generation Sound Studios to record Solo Piano, Volume 1, which would be released later in the year as IAI 37.38.50 (RJ-7419 in Japan). It was eventually reissued on compact disc in 1992 as IAI 123850 but is now out of print (see Campbell & Trent p.236). The first in a series of solo piano recordings made in during the year, Volume 1 is also the most satisfying.

Alone in the studio, Sonny is in a reflective mood, ruminating on a handful of original compositions and choice covers. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is given a hauntingly abstract reading, alternating between enervated, polytonal passagework and serene, floating chords. The following “Cosmo Rhythmatic” continues this rhapsodic, orchestral approach while “Yesterdays” is played mostly straight, with an occasionally bubbly ragtime feel that fittingly evokes Sun Ra’s early days on the south side of Chicago. On “Romance of Two Planets” Ra stacks up unstable blocks of vertical harmonies amidst flurries of repeated melodic figures, rumbling bass notes and sharply dissonant tone clusters—the most “out-there” piece on the album. Meanwhile, the impressionistic “Irregular Galaxy” sounds like a sketch for potential Arkestra number with its weirdly swinging chord progression and intricately intertwined counter-melodies. Finally, “To A Friend” demonstrates Sun Ra’s peculiarly inventive take on the blues: a two-chord vamp over which he elaborates in seemingly endless variation, sometimes in several keys simultaneously.  As Szwed points out, “those who had known him for years understood that his origins were in the blues and assumed that side of his playing: ‘Sun Ra could play the blues for twenty four hours without repeating a phrase’ they claimed” (p.343). Even at seven-plus minutes, “To A Friend” is but a brief example of Sun Ra’s genius in this regard.

A flurry of solo concerts followed in the wake of Solo Piano, Volume 1, some of which were documented. And while the live audiences obviously energized Sonny, making for some exciting performances, the introspective, meditative quality of Volume 1 is special, a truly unique—and therefore essential—item in Sun Ra’s immense discography.

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