A Fickle Sonance
a column by
Sun Ra, 1974 Michael Wilderman©2010
The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra, Vol. 2 was the first Sun Ra LP I bought, still a teenager and just dabbling in the wild environs of free jazz. I believe I had read something about it in Amiri Baraka’s (then Leroi Jones’) Black Music, and was intrigued by what Baraka described as Ra’s “…spontaneous composition and the utilization of a ‘total sound’ concept, i.e, when the music seems to take up all available sound space.” And the brilliant cover art – with its detailed map of the galaxy circa 1846, and Ra’s picture included in the pantheon of star-gazers from Pythagoras to Galileo – clinched the deal. The music, of course, was stunning, and I was hooked. So I followed up with Volume 1, which turned out to have a rather different feel, starker, darker, more concise and controlled, with a heavier emphasis on percussive textures. There was something in the extravagant contrast of instrumental colors, the spatial sculpting of sound, which reminded me of similarly bold works by Edgar Varèse that I had also recently discovered, like “Hyperprism” and “Ecuatorial.” I had to hear more.
It’s taken several decades to fully immerse myself in the immense Sun Ra discography, from the proto-Arkestras reflecting Ra’s Swing roots in the distorted perspective of a fun house mirror to the glittering cosmic caravan and time-warping show band of the later years, and despite all of the unfailingly imaginative and intense music that he produced, those two sessions of April and November 1965 that resulted in The Heliocentric Worlds, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 have remained to my mind the most impressive of all. Amazingly, forty years after the fact ESP “found” an additional thirty-five minutes of music from the second session, and a Volume 3 was released. Somehow I missed out on that event and was unaware of the extra music, until now. ESP has reissued all three volumes in a single package, one album per disc, with bonus material attached to each. Most of this non-musical material is inconsequential – photos of Ra, the back and front covers of the original releases (this is, however, the only place to find information about the differing personnel on each session, as there is no program booklet included), and some links to reviews from various publications, which did not work when I tried to access them. But there is one important bonus, the 18-minute documentary, Spaceways, filmed by Edward English in 1968. As Sun Ra narrates his views on the band, his earthly and other-worldly realms, and the present “myth” in which we live, we see an ingenious montage of images: the lavishly painted walls of the Sun Ra commune, shots of New York’s Lower East Side, neighborhood basketballers and churchgoers, African tribal dancing, the police “quelling” a late-‘60s public protest, Egyptian icons, and band rehearsals and concert footage (alas, the musical soundtrack does not correspond to the film), ending with Sun Ra smiling beatifically in the center of an orchestral maelstrom.
All well and good, but what about the music? First of all, Volume 3 is a thrilling discovery, every bit the equal of Volume 2, the highlight being an exceptional 17-minute construction, Intercosmosis. Introduced by Marshall Allen’s abrasive alto saxophone, the music represents an odyssey through various collective and solo horn adventures, held together by Ra’s repeated episodes of musique mechanique piano figures. At other points he creates a free association of romantic ballad gestures, and crafts an interlude that begins in a tranquil mode and gradually grows hyperactive. But it’s the focused melodic interplay of the horns – Allen’s alto, Pat Patrick’s baritone sax, John Gilmore’s tenor, Robert Cummings’ bass clarinet, and Walter Miller’s trumpet – that sustains the thematic thread running through the entire performance. Sun Ra’s keyboards are featured in a pair of shorter pieces – the chromatic ballad “Heliocentric Worlds” which resolves into a mysterious clavoline excursion, and “World Worlds,” based on conventional chord changes – and there are two ensemble essays, the sketchy and inconclusive “Mythology Metamorphosis,” and the energetic, polyphonic “Interplanetary Travelers.” Here, and in Volume 2, Ra’s spontaneous arrangements not only assert a dramatic tension in the continually shifting instrumental relationships, but inspire the musicians to make distinctive and defining – albeit often brief – contributions. John Litweiler, in The Freedom Principle, marvelously characterized Ronnie Boykins’ bass role in “The Sun Myth” (Volume 2) as “tragic,” and Boykins is heroic throughout all three volumes. Likewise, the volatile horn section of Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, and Pat Patrick is a known commodity, and Ra himself displays some remarkable prowess, especially when playing separate phrasings on different keyboards simultaneously. But there are equally valuable moments from the less-celebrated Walter Miller (his driving, swing-soaked outing in “Cosmic Chaos” [Volume 2] is a special delight), Robert Cummings, and in Volume 1, trumpeter Chris Capers, trombonist Teddy Nance, and bass trombonist Bernard Pettaway.
In Free Jazz, originally published in 1974, Ekkehard Jost offered some cogent analysis of Heliocentric Worlds, Vol. 1, specifically having to do with Sun Ra’s replacing orthodox compositional form with pre-determined but spontaneously designed details requiring appropriate responses from the ensemble. He wrote: “In Heliocentric Worlds the secret of structural clarity, in the midst of unpredictability, is not the rule of an imaginary ‘cosmic’ force (as Sun Ra sometimes likes to suggest in his commentaries) but, above all, a uniformity of concept and execution that he achieves by unremitting work with his musicians.” As it turns out, outside of the abbreviated “Dancing in the Sun” that closes the program with a burst of rhythmic energy, this is not free jazz at all (as passages of Volume 2 and Volume 3 are), but tone poetry – a keen structuring of evocative material employing instrumental colors and textures as shape-defining details in a spatial environment of rhythmic irregularity. An occasional walking bass line or horn explosion is exceptional; more often, Boykins is playing textured arco lines and the horns provide color and exaggerated timbres. Prominence is given to the expanded percussion section; Cummings, Patrick, Gilmore, Allen, and Jimhmi Johnson all participate on timpani, wood blocks, cymbals, and other instruments, and Sun Ra himself plays as much or more bass marimba as he does keyboards.
The ensemble is not free to improvise; Sun Ra’s cueing is audible evidence of structural organization based on tonal affinities and contrast (in Spaceways, Ra uses the phrase “enigmatic caution,” which seems to fit). His spontaneous composing here is the source of “conduction,” which Butch Morris has subsequently refined and personalized. Ra himself expanded on these techniques, but never returned to such a controlled use of them, drifting away from their chamber music sensitivity to proportion and clarity, ultimately preferring the more expressionistically confrontational free jazz urgency and Swing Era exuberance. But Heliocentric Worlds, Vol. 1 shows Sun Ra at his most experimental, unpredictable, abstract. As it said on the back of the LP: “You Never Heard Such Sounds In Your Life.” Nor would we again.