July 21, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra Quartet Featuring John Gilmore: Other Voices, Other Blues (Horo 2LP)

The second Horo studio recording, Other Voices, Other Blues, was recorded at Horo Voice Studio in Rome, Italy on January 8 and 13, 1978 and released later in the year as a two-LP set, Horo HDP 23-24 (Campbell & Trent p.246). As with the other Horo titles, Unity and New Steps, distribution was poor (especially stateside) and has never been officially reissued, making it one of the rarer albums in the already obscure Sun Ra discography. What a crime! While all of the Horos are fascinating records, Other Voices, Other Blues is by far my favorite of the two Italian studio sessions.

Unlike New Steps, there are overdubs on every single track (an unusual practice for Ra, even into the '80s and '90s), with Sonny adding synthesized bass lines (or other stuff) while John Gilmore, Michael Ray and Luqman Ali contribute additional percussion to the mix of keyboards, saxophone, trumpet and drums. This greatly thickens the sound of the quartet and lends a consistently funky and experimental flavor to the album. It’s easy to picture the four men crowded into the tiny studio, earphones on their heads, gleefully constructing these oddly captivating tracks. Any tentativeness heard on New Steps is gone on this second day in the studio—they are going for it! Gilmore is again the star of the show, delivering an endless stream of gloriously inventive solos, while Ray more than holds his own amidst Sun Ra’s burbling, wheezing keyboards and rollicking acoustic piano, only occasionally resorting to his patented (and often annoying) echo-echo trick. In fact, it appears that the young upstart may have gotten under Gilmore’s skin, inspiring some of his most fiery and intensely brilliant playing on record.

Yet, despite all these aural pleasures, there is something slightly dissatisfying for me about these quartet sessions. It’s not just the absence of bass since Ra is adequately providing the bottom end on synthesizer (at least most of the time), so I can only point the finger at the laconic—if not downright sleepy—drumming of Luqman Ali. To be fair, his subtle, sensitive touch contributes to the relaxed, dreamy quality of the albums. But I find myself wanting more from him on the longer, weirder tracks like “Bridge to the 9th Dimension” or “Constellation,” where his boom-chick rhythms remain stubbornly earthbound, only taking off with the addition of Gilmore’s overdubbed drums and percussion. I realize that it is totally unreasonable to expect Ronnie Boykins and Clifford Jarvis to be in the rhythm section, but I can’t help but imagine what that might have sounded like.

Nevertheless, there is an undeniably magical quality to the Horos—and especially Other Voices, Other Blues—which makes them uniquely special, with a loose, exploratory feel reminiscent of the classic Choreographer’s Workshop recordings. Beyond Gilmore’s phenomenal soloing and the ear-tickling studio wizardry, it is Sun Ra’s uncanny ability to transform the cheesiest, most primitive electronic keyboards (and beat-up pianos) into powerfully expressive instruments that is most impressive here. Turning these humble tools into a virtual orchestra of tones, timbres and effects, Ra demonstrates his mastery of electronic (and electrified) music while his compositions—mostly thrown together in the studio—show his effectiveness as an arranger and bandleader, with the simple but flexible heads allowing the small ensemble to wander far and wide. Curiously, Ra did not bother to provide proper titles to these new works, leaving them to Horo to invent. “Springtime and Summer Idyll,” “One Day in Rome” and “Along the Tiber” (and New Steps titles like “Friend and Friendship”) are probably not what Sonny had in mind and are embarrassingly incongruous to the music. However, I suspect he signed away his publishing in order to make these records, so he didn’t (or couldn’t) care what they were called. Whatever, these are inimitably Sun Ra compositions, however slight they may appear on the surface.

Quibbles aside, the Horo quartet records are an essential piece of the Sun Ra puzzle, with Other Voices, Other Blues being a near-masterwork. And Sonny was clearly inspired by this ad hoc, small group setting: he booked at least two concerts for the band while they were in Italy, which were recorded for release on his own Saturn label. We’ll take a listen to those in coming weeks on Sun Ra Sunday.

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