Sun Ra Quartet Featuring John Gilmore: New Steps (Horo 2LP)
While it’s possible Sun Ra returned to the states in December 1977 to appear with the Arkestra at The Bottom Line in New York, it seems more likely he stayed in Italy, where he worked out a deal to release a series of albums for the Horo Records label (Unity (recorded by Ra earlier in the year) and two new studio recordings, New Steps and Other Voices Other Blues, all of them double-LP sets). According to Prof. Campbell (via Gianni Morelenbaum Gualberto, who produced the sessions), “the Horo albums were made in a small studio [Horo Voice Studio] that specialized in jingles, because none of the other studios in Rome were available at the time…[They] were recorded in such haste because Sun Ra was about leave Italy. But after they were completed, Sunny changed his mind and extended his stay for another two weeks” (Campbell & Trent p.245-246). Although the Venice gig took place back in November, this is further evidence that Ra remained in Italy through the end of 1977.
Regardless, there was good reason for Ra to want to do something with Horo. The Italian jazz label was founded by Aldo Sinesio in 1972, and had released albums by local artists like Gianni Basso, Giorgio Gaslini, Enrico Rava, and Giancarlo Schiaffini as well as American luminaries such as Max Roach, Archie Shepp, Gil Evans, Don Pullen, Ran Blake and Lester Bowie. Yet, however prestigious and critically acclaimed, Horo records were unfortunately issued in vanishingly small quantities and were poorly distributed beyond Western Europe, making them extremely rare today (especially in the U.S.). Rumors of the label’s resurrection have come and gone for years but nothing really has come of it and these classic Sun Ra records remain frustratingly out of print. As with Unity, my copies are merely OK-sounding “needledrops” but I’d sure love to have clean originals. Needless to say, they go for big bucks on the secondary market. (The Mystery of Being (Klimt), which crams the two studio sessions into a three-LP box set of dubious provenance, will be dealt with separately.)
The Horo studio recordings are not only obscure and nearly impossible to find but also some of the most unusual in all the (already unusual) discography. The hastily gathered ensemble consists of a mere quartet with Sun Ra on piano, organ and synthesizer, John Gilmore on tenor sax and percussion, newcomer Michael Ray on trumpet and percussion and Luqman Ali on drums. This is rare opportunity to hear Sun Ra in a small group setting. Moreover, the skeletal ensemble prompted him to do something he didn’t often do: record overdubs on additional tracks. According to Gualberto, Sonny found “a small cheap keyboard” in the studio and used it to program overdubbed bass lines and other effects while the rest of the group provided additional percussion and drums (Id.). This gives many of the loosely constructed tracks an impossible, otherworldly quality that is truly unique. Nothing else Ra ever did (before or since) sounds quite like this.
New Steps was recorded first, on January 2 and 7 and released as a two-LP set in 1978 as Horo HDP25-26 (Id.) and the opening take of “My Favorite Things” signals the difference in the quartet’s approach. While the tune had appeared before on Some Blues But Not The Kind That’s Blue and Unity, here it is simultaneously stripped-down and souped-up. The ultra-laconic Luqman Ali makes Tommy Hunter sound like Clifford Jarvis while Ra’s nimble piano figuration and bizarre, overdubbed bass lines create a stuttering, bubbling counterpoint. This is a primo vehicle for Gilmore, who naturally plays his ass off, referencing John Coltrane’s famous remake while doing his own inimitable thing on tenor. Ray, holds his own throughout these sessions, playing with admirable taste and restraint (especially for such a young kid) but Gilmore is clearly the star soloist here. It is altogether fitting that these albums were billed to the “Sun Ra Quartet Featuring John Gilmore.”
Aside from such familiar fare as “My Favorite Things,” the old standard, “Exactly Like You” (in its premiere performance) and “When There Is No Sun” (complete with group vocals), these Horo sessions are all markedly experimental, with loosely structured head arrangements and an inspired, playful approach to multi-track technology. Sun Ra and his men are clearly enjoying themselves in the tiny, cramped studio and that sense of pleasure and adventure comes through in the music. “Moon People” and “Rome in Twilight” flirt with funk/rock grooves (a harbinger of what’s to come later in the year) while “Friend and Friendship” takes on a more somber, introspective tone. Interestingly, the longest tracks, “Sun Steps” (twelve minutes) and “The Horo” (more than fifteen), eschew studio trickery altogether and present the quartet naked and unadorned, improvising in an abstract but not-quite-free manner. Chord progressions and melodies appear and recede in a dreamlike reverie, spontaneous composition and guided improvisation at its most sensitive and refined, a synchronized group mind at work.
New Steps is yet another neglected masterpiece in the Sun Ra canon – and the follow-up, Other Voices, Other Blues, is perhaps even better. We’ll take a listen to that next time on Sun Ra Sunday.