Classic Album Review,
The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vols 1 & 2
This new reissue of Sun Ra and the Arkestra’s Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Volumes 1 & 2 combines two of the group’s landmark recordings on to onto one album. Originally released on the ESP label in 1965, both albums represent the apex of Ra’s most experimental period, through a series of highly imaginative and colourful suites. Beginners might find an album like Space is the Place on Impulse! a more user-friendly place to start, but these recordings have stood the test of time exceedingly well, and possess a mystery that remains as potent today as on first release.
For a genre that is chock full of larger-than-life characters, Sun Ra’s reputation as one of jazz’s true eccentrics remains undimmed. The weight of the myth is sometimes in danger of obscuring just how important a figure he was to the liberation of jazz from the fifties onwards, and sometimes risks relegating his art to that of a novelty act for the uninitiated. Born Herman Poole Blount on May 22, 1914, in Birmingham, Alabama, he spent the first part of his career as a vaudeville pianist, before moving to Chicago in the mid-forties to join Fletcher Henderson’s group. Chicago had become a hot-bed of radical African-American political debate, sowing the seeds for the nascent civil rights movement, which left a deep impression. Legally changing his name to Le Sony’r Ra (hence Sun Ra) in 1952, he came to believe himself to have been born on Saturn, a realisation prompted after claiming to have been abducted by aliens in the thirties. Developing his own mythology, based on a fascination with science fiction, cosmology, and black history stretching back to the ancient Egyptians, Ra’s performance attire became more theatrical. His band wore futuristic costumes, and the themes explored in his music were about escaping earth for freedom in new dimensions, as well as a good dose of atomic era paranoia. Years later Ra would be credited as the originator of the Afrofuturism movement, and had a huge influence on artists as diverse as George Clinton (with his bands Parliament and Funkadelic), Captain Beefheart, Prince, the Detroit techno of Drexciya, and latterly The Comet is Coming and Kamasi Washington.
His band, the Arkestra, were required to live communally, abstain from drink, drugs and sex, and be on call to rehearse at any time of the day or night. Despite the cult-like conditions imposed upon them, the Arkestra became a remarkably stable base for many musicians, with the core of the band formed around players devoted to both Sun Ra’s philosophy and music, most notably John Gilmore (tenor sax) who stayed with the band until his death in 1995, and Marshall Allen (alto sax) who leads the band to this day, age 95. Both were highly talented artists in their own right (John Gilmore is credited as having a major influence on John Coltrane’s stylistic development), who could have forged successful solo careers had they not opted for the monastic stability that Ra offered.
Sun Ra’s music evolved through several stylistic shifts over the years, starting off as a fairly straight big band that soon became more esoteric as the fifties progressed, especially when Ra introduced new textures with electronic keyboard instruments. The sixties see the music flowering into its own unique take on free jazz, with chanted vocals by the band and sole female member, June Tyson, taking on an extra prominence, and an increased focus on tribal percussion.
Heliocentric, the opening track on Volume 1, transports us to a mysterious alien landscape, with Ra playing his odd bass marimba lines in such a low register that it’s often more felt than heard. Joined by Pat Patrick’s bass saxophone lines, intertwining like snakes in thick jungle foliage, we then get Danny Davis’s flute sounding like a three-headed parrot (well that’s what I see when I hear it). As the band move into Outer Nothingness the ritualistic elements of the music start to recall twentieth-century classical pieces by Edgar Varèse or Messiaen as much as peers like Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, or Albert Ayler. The prominent claves and abstract pastoral atmosphere in Of Heavenly Thing sounds like a funkier version of Birtwistle’s Tragoedia (which premiered in the same year), sharing that work’s sense of a Cubist take on ancient pageants. Nebulae is an extended Ra solo, playing electric celeste and piano simultaneously (years before Rick Wakeman), and Dancing in the Sun wraps thing up with a throbbing, wonky romp for full band.
We find a pared-down Arkestra in Volume 2, which focusses on two extended pieces for smaller chamber configurations. The Sun Myth contrasts Ronnie Boykins’s bowed bass, Ra’s tuned bongo and clavioline, and Roger Blanks’s tribal percussion with interjections from the horns in a varied and compelling piece (Ra’s clavionline make some seriously eerie sounds toward the midway point). Cosmic Chaos sounds exactly as you would expect from the title and is perhaps the closest the group gets to the free jazz of Coleman and Coltrane. These two pieces are separated by the much shorter A House of Beauty, a wonderful trio for piccolo, keyboards and double bass. Overall, as a user-friendly introduction to the more abstract music of the Arkestra, this new reissue on ezz-thetics can’t be bettered, and unlike some albums of the period the recording quality is detailed and clear.