Sun Ra’s Saturnal Sorcery


Early one morning, listening to Sun Ra’s recently restored Pathways to Unknown Worlds, I was taken with the grainy glissandi that bassist Ronnie Boykins was bowing, rifflike, against a cluttered rhythm and pointillistic wind-playing. Then the phone rang and I hit pause; the music stopped, but Boykins kept at it. What Saturnal sorcery was this? Turned out it wasn’t Boykins at all, but a carpenter on the roof laboring with some kind of drill. In fact, a lot of effects I had been admiring came from him and other workmen, who blended in so beautifully with Sun Ra’s Arkestra that I had to turn the volume way up to sort out who was doing what.

A Cageian moment, and long live indeterminacy. Nearly two minutes into “Cosmo- Media,” the fourth track on the same album, Sun Ra uses his Moog to sound more like a drill than the drill. Long live serendipity too. The utterly dreadful 1986 Coney Island concert by Sun Ra and John Cage didn’t amount to much, musically or even symbolically, because Ra, a conservative in this regard, thought art was the process of making something out of nothing, and Cage, composer turned philosopher turned confidence man, could no longer think of anything worthwhile to fill the silence he had so famously introduced into the concert arena. Ra, often characterized as a trickster for his extraterrestrial, occultist, costumed, showbiz blarney, which he believed in no less sincerely than did Cage in the musical uses of the I Ching, never allowed himself to be seduced by the sound of silence. His notion of chance extended to recording sessions that declined to distinguish between performance and rehearsal and audio engineering that embraced feedback, footsteps, a ringing phone, a pneumatic drill.

In the ’60s, when he first made his national mark as a fiftysomething avant-garde visionary (The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra on ESP-Disk, a label initially founded to spread the universal language of Esperanto, was a breakthrough) with an enigmatic past, Ra blended right in with the general state of confusion. He offered a kind of musical version of The Morning of the Magicians, and anyone who had ever seen Porter Wagoner knew that his space suits were no weirder than the shit they wore in Nashville. No, the cynicism that arose had less to do with the interplanetary stuff than the sheer diversity and profusion of music, live and on records, that often made him seem bigger than life and smaller than his intentions.

Over the past decade, Ra, who died, or “left the planet,” in 1993, at 79, has been made more human and impressive through the efforts of John Szwed, whose Space Is the Place is illuminating and convincing, and Jerry Gordon, who used to sell Ra’s white-cover or hand-painted Saturn albums at a Philadelphia record store and has now restored many of them for his label, Evidence. An indication of just how obscure Ra’s story remained was the widespread astonishment, in 1996, when Evidence released the two-disc set The Singles. Sun Ra singles? Nearly 50 of them, many doowop?? But then, Jazz in Silhouette, recorded in 1958, is probably the only consensus jazz classic that was unheard—as opposed to ignored, underrated, attacked—by the generation for which it was created.

Now Evidence continues its mission with five new releases of long unavailable material and, in the case of the two-volume The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums, material that was recorded and never released. According to the notes by Ed Michel, the Impulse producer who contracted with Ra to reissue albums from the Saturn catalog, Cymbals and Crystal Spears were part of a mess of tapes Ra turned over to him; he issued 10 LPs (including Jazz in Silhouette, Angels and Demons at Play, Supersonic Jazz, and The Magic City—all now among the highlights of the Evidence catalog), and then the deal fell through. This does not make sense. If I read Michel correctly, Impulse refused to sign Ra because he wanted to control his copyrights, so it agreed to license previously released albums. But the deal was made in 1972 and the two lost albums were recorded in 1973, and only three tracks were ever released on Saturn. It would appear that Ra and his partner, Alton Abraham, simply made the albums they wanted to make in the first place, offered them as old material, and retained the copyrights—a poetic con if there ever was one.

In the end it worked and didn’t work; by releasing too much too soon, Impulse glutted the market and gave up on Sun Ra before it had released more than half the 22 masters it acquired, adding to the impression that his oeuvre was cosmic (in truth, it’s not as large as Ellington’s or Kenton’s). On the other hand, it did give Sun Ra a platform that smaller labels like ESP-Disk and Delmark, let alone Saturn, could not have matched.

The lost albums will be chiefly of interest to completists, though they have many pleasing moments. Sun Ra was much ridiculed for his pitch-challenged musicians and ensembles, but a cursory sampling of his work (including 21 titles on Evidence) reveals that he could be as in tune as he wanted. He uses dissonance to get your attention; if you play along, even moments that seem aimless at first blush take on depth and interest. Which is not to say that he was never slipshod, especially in the ’80s, when he revisited his swing-era roots and played Fletcher Henderson arrangements with spotty accuracy; like Dr. Johnson’s dog, Sun Ra was given a critical pass because he could do it at all—a patronizing view of an artist whose best bands were vigorously on target. But for those who wish to be creamed by a masterly avant-garde anomaly, the 20-minute closer to the lost albums, “Sunrise in the Western Sky,” is not to be missed. John Gilmore’s tenor saxophone solo may strike you as chaotic and ugly or (as I prefer) elliptically anguished, but it is unlike any other solo that comes to mind; instead of a sustained burst of energy, it cries out in bellowing spurts interrupted by long caesuras, building not so much in intensity as in stubbornness. The rhythm section sustains an Africanate swingless tableau while Gilmore wails, disappears, returns and aches, wanders off, returns again and shrieks, rages, wags his finger, then finally leaves while the rhythm keeps an imperviously cool eight-beat going into infinity, or at least until cymbal crashes bring it to ground.

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

Archive Highlights