Sun Ra’s Saturnal Sorcery

Long Live Serendipity

Lanquidity is the only title I knew on LP, and I find it marginally more interesting now. Recorded in 1978, this is his acknowledgment of Miles Davis's dark magus period, boring (if you prefer, languid) in a witty sort of way, very repetitious, with riffs and piano noodling that create a mood and sustain interest if you make the leap of faith—think of a jaunty "He Loved Him Madly" and you're on your way to "Twin Stars of Thence." The music mostly sits there, the rhythm designed not to propel it forward, but to situate it in the present. Most of the selections might have been half or twice as long and it would make no difference. Lanquidity is mood music, but so is most of Sun Ra's music—mood, not background. If you are not in the mood for When Angels Speak of Love, the most striking of the five new releases, don't even try it.

Had this astonishing album been widely released the year it was recorded, 1966, it would have been reviewed alongside Cecil Taylor's Unit Structures and would have a reputation today, not least because, without the slightest hint of nostalgia, it faces down aspects of what Francis Davis once tellingly referred to as Ra's "race memory," where swing, rhythm and blues, bebop, hard bop, doowop, Tadd Dameron voicings, and the rest converge, and, with a few glass-shattering disharmonious blasts, announces his intention to join the avant-garde ferment of the 1960s—which in some respects he anticipated, but, in others, adapted. For an example of the latter, his assimilation of Taylor's piano playing, chapter and verse, on "The Idea of It All" and the title ballad, itself a throwback to the serene melodies he occasionally wrote in the 1950s, is a delightful surprise. Ra was an uneven but effective pianist (hear the solo St. Louis Blues on IAI), and he had his own way of breaking conventions—e.g., his solo on the 1960 "Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus"—so his reference to Taylor is shrewdly deliberate. Like Jaki Byard, another veteran of big bands and one of the few pianists listening to Taylor that carefully in 1966, he also allows bop memories to come into play. Another pleasure is the rare opportunity to hear trumpeter Walter Miller at length. Miller apparently began with Ra in Alabama in the late 1930s, but by the time of When Angels Speak of Love, he had absorbed Don Cherry and found his own flight paths—his solos are consistently personal and inventive.

Sun Ra, who tended to go normal with a big band, was at his best with the kind of 10-piece group heard on When Angels Speak of Love and on the '50s recordings included in Greatest Hits, a fine compilation, though the absence of Julian Priester's "Soft-Talk" and personnel information is annoying. Conceived as a sampler of the galaxy's lighter side, it includes "When Angels Speak"; the exquisite "Enlightenment," featuring elusive trumpet player Hobart Dotson; "Round Midnight," with one of Ra's better vocalists, Hatty Randolph; the aforementioned "Rocket Number Nine," which has everything—a loopy chant, an oddball piano intro, Boykins's buzzing arco bass, and a Gilmore solo that begins with a Coltrane quote and proceeds to push the envelope into the area Coltrane explored a year later at the Vanguard. The set begins with Ra's theme, "Saturn," which combines a six-beat piano intro; a contrapuntal 7/4 seven-bar melody (14 bars on the Jazz in Silhouette version); the main theme, a memorable unison "I Got Rhythm" variation with substitutions, in four; and lively solos by Gilmore and trumpeter Art Hoyle—with equally lively electric bass by Wilburn Green. It's a three-minute prophecy of what was to come. You can't help but wonder what its impact might have been had it been released in 1956 by a real record company.

Wooze and Spazz by Eric Weisbard

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