The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra
The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One
02. Outer Nothingness 07:37
03. Other Worlds 04:35
04. The Cosmos 07:30
05. Of Heavenly Things 05:45
06. Nebulae 03:20
07. Dancing in the Sun 01:55
Sun Ra's pivotal recording Heliocentric Worlds, Vol. I is one of those efforts that any fan of challenging improvised music should own. Done in the spring of 1965, it parallels many of the more important statements of the time, like John Coltrane's movement toward unabashed free jazz, the developed music of Ornette Coleman, emerging figures like Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, and a fully flowered Albert Ayler. The Solar Arkestra was a solid 11-piece group, with hefty contributions by saxophonists Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, Danny Davis, and Robert Cummings, lone trumpeter Chris Capers, trombonists Teddy Nance and Bernard Pettaway, and the exceptional bassist Ronnie Boykins, playing strictly instrumental music, with no chants or vocal space stories. What is most intruguing about this Ra band is that the leader plays very little acoustic piano, choosing to focus his attention primarily on the bass marimba, and to a lesser extent an electrically amplified celeste. It's the prelude of his move to a raw but technologically driven sound as the synthesizer would come into his arsenal of instruments shortly after this. There's the deep blues of "Heliocentric," low key until lion-roaring horns enter, but the rip-snorting attitude of "Outer Nothingness" changes the tone, as multiple layers of improvisation build only to a mezzo forte level, with a collective percussion solo and the deeply hued, resonant, wooden bass marimba as played by the leader. Ra returns to his plucky sounding acoustic piano for the improvised "Other Worlds," then moves to the shimmering celeste while Boykins leads the charge of the full ensemble with a scattershot, fiery, chaotic, mad free bop. Perhaps a track that most perfectly represents the democratic nature of the Arkestra, "The Cosmos" features many segments stitched together, whether it be the bowed bass of Boykins stringing tied notes in seconds and thirds, Ra's galactic celeste, or bits and pieces of the horn section stepping up and out, with the final note struck by Jimhmi Johnson's royal tympani. An Egyptian, march-implied theme ruminates through "Of Heavenly Things" with the bass marimba and Allen's piccolo in the middle, "Nebulae" is a feature for the dense celeste of Ra played alone, and the conclusionary "Dancing in the Sun" is a two-minute burst of free bebop with Ra back at the piano. What makes this music so joyful and even organized is the way that individual voicings are able to both stand on their own, and work in context improvisationally. Though not quite the full-blown, magnum opus, operatic space drama the band would eventually conceive, the planted seeds from the huge tree of what they were about to accomplish are sown in this truly remarkable effort, still an event, and a turning point for early creative music.
The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume Two
02. A House Of Beauty
03. Cosmic Chaos
Also known as "The Sun Myth" on some releases, named for the first track.
According to Geerken/Trent's Omniverse, there are three distinct mixes of The Sun Myth:
Version one has African voices very audible throughout and "ESP 1017A 152 DBH" in the runout of side A.
Version two has no voices and "ESP 1017-A ORT-2 DBH" in the side A runout.
Version three as the voices mixed very low, audible at the beginning and end with "ESP 1017A(68) AM967 DBH" in the runout.
Version two seems to have become the standard for later reissues.
Although the "Vol. 2" in the title insinuates some degree of continuity with its predecessor, this is a bit of a misnomer as the only acknowledged connection with The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. 1 (the volume number only indicating the order in which they were issued). Due in part to the wider exposure and distribution of the ESP label, enthusiasts and critics were unanimous in their recognition of this masterpiece of free jazz -- or, as Ra called it, "space jazz." The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. 2 is comprised of three unique compositions: "The Sun Myth," "A House of Beauty," and "Cosmic Chaos." Sun Ra's work with an ensemble often presents a stated emphasis on the percussive nature of solos as well as within the group context. The underlying freeform anti-structure allows defining contrasts that ultimately establish the progressing sonic sculpture. "The Sun Myth" showcases Ra's definitive capabilities to guide his assembled musicians from anywhere within said group. He is heard on this recording initiating improvisational exchanges on tuned bongos -- for a portion of the track -- rather than from his customary keyboards. The resulting interactions include mesmerizing bass solos from Ronnie Boykins as well as some impassioned alto sax work from Marshall Allen. Directly contrasting the works that surround it is "A House of Beauty." The emphasis shifts, juxtaposing Allen's unfettered piccolo solos with Ra on piano and Robert Cumming on bass clarinet. Of particular note here are Ra's achingly lyrical piano runs and chord progressions, which weave between the light percussion beds and the dominant woodwind section. "Cosmic Chaos" is the final and most archetypal of the ensemble works that Ra and his various Arkestras would produce throughout the '60s. The extended piece begins with rush upon rush of aggressive counterpoint, building into unreserved group crescendos that are likewise punctuated by various woodwind soloists.
The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra Volume Three - The Lost Tapes
02. Mythology Metamorphosis
03. Heliocentric Worlds
04. World Worlds
05. Interplanetary Travelers
Baritone Saxophone – Pat Patrick (tracks: 1-1 to 2-3)
Bass – Ronnie Boykins (tracks: 1-1 to 2-3)
Bass Clarinet – Robert Cummings (tracks: 1-1 to 2-3)
Bass Trombone – Bernard Pettaway (tracks: 1-1 to 1-7)
Bells – Marshall Allen (tracks: 1-1 to 1-7)
Cymbal [Spiral Cymbal] – Marshall Allen (tracks: 1-4)
Flute, Alto Saxophone – Danny Davis (tracks: 1-1 to 1-7)
Marimba [Bass], Celesta [Electronic Celeste] – Sun Ra (tracks: 1-1 to 1-7)
Percussion – Jimhmi Johnson* (tracks: 1-3, 1-4), John Gilmore (tracks: 2-1 to 2-3), Pat Patrick (tracks: 1-1, 1-2, 1-4 to 2-3), Pat Patrick (tracks: 2-1 to 2-3), Robert Cummings (tracks: 2-1 to 2-3), Roger Blank (tracks: 2-1 to 2-3)
Piano, Bongos [Tuned], Synthesizer [Clavioline] – Sun Ra (tracks: 2-1 to 2-3)
Piccolo Flute, Alto Saxophone, Bells – Marshall Allen (tracks: 1-1 to 2-3)
Tenor Saxophone – John Gilmore (tracks: 1-1 to 2-3)
Timpani – Jimhmi Johnson* (tracks: 1-4), John Gilmore (tracks: 1-1, 1-5), Sun Ra (tracks: 1-2)
Trombone – Teddy Nance (tracks: 1-1 to 1-7)
Trumpet – Chris Capors* (tracks: 1-1 to 1-7), Walter Miller (tracks: 2-1 to 2-3)
Wood Block – Robert Cummings (tracks: 1-1 to 1-7)
Volume One: RLA Sound Studios, NYC, April 20, 1965
Volume Two & Three: RLA Sound Studios, NYC, November 16, 1965.
"Sun Ra would go to the studio and he would play something, the bass would come in, and if he didn't like it he'd stop it; and he'd give the drummer a particular rhythm, tell the bass he wanted not a 'boom boom boom,' but something else, and then he'd begin to try out the horns, we're all standing there wondering what's next...
"I just picked up the piccolo and worked with what was going on, what mood they set, or what feeling they had. A lot of things we'd be rehearsing and we did the wrong things and Sun Ra stopped the arrangement and changed it. Or he would change the person who was playing the particular solo, so that changes the arrangement. So the one that was soloing would get another part given to him personally. 'Cos he knew people. He could understand what you could do better so he would fit that with what he would tell you." Marshall Allen
Each of the three Heliocentric volumes were performed and recorded in the span of less than a year, between April and November of 1965. Ra was accompanied by the same 12 musicians for both dates, among them multi-instrumentalist Marshall Allen (probably most famous for his sax playing), bassist Ronnie Boykins, and baritone sax player Pat Patrick (Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's father). Roughly 19 instruments find their way onto the record, including tuned tympani, bass clarinet and bass trombone, the clavioline, tuned bongos, bass marimba, and an electronic celesta. Band size, instrumental choices, excellent performances, unclassifiable sounds, and the improvisational structure of all three volumes have earned these records an important place in the history of free jazz, as well as a legendary status. They were performed and released before John Coltrane's Ascension, broke strongly with the turbulent and wilder styling of Ornette Coleman's double quartet, and showcased an altogether different sound for the Arkestra, which had just released a string of excellent, but more readily digestible records, including Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy. Along with The Magic City, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra most strongly define Ra's New York period sound and represent some of his most enduring ideas as a composer and band leader. Whether or not they can be classified as free jazz is another question entirely.
Listening to Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, I focused immediately on their fragmented, frequently clumsy ensemble and solo passages. Boykins, percussionists Jimhmi Johnson, Pat Patrick, and Roger Blank, and the rest of the Arkestra spend much of their time stumbling over (and sometimes through) their instruments, producing atonal passages of a childish quality with seemingly little attention paid to structure, melody, or rhythm. Nothing I'd heard or read before could help me get inside the tympani and bass duets of "Heliocentric" or the drunken clavioline and piano fights on "Nebulae." The best I could muster was a feeble comparison to early Nurse with Wound records, because Ra's sudden tempo changes and unusual instrumentation produced effects and contrasting textures that reminded me of the tape collages Stapleton produced. After listening more closely and reading some helpful articles, I was clued into the structure hiding behind the chaos, and subsequently into the beauty and originality of the Arkestra's sound.
Ra would conduct his large group by pairing instruments together and providing them loose rules. For instance, Boykins would be instructed to bow his bass, or trombonist Teddy Nance would be told to play long, whole notes against a contrasting rapidly moving flute solo, and both would be paired with seemingly unrelated percussion solos, wood blocks, or bass marimba. Each group of musicians would solo together, but only as Ra conducted them to do so and only according to a mood or idea Ra was exploring. So in one instant trombone and sax are playing together, and then the wood block and bass, and at any moment the whole band could erupt in a fit of excitement and noise, each with a wave of Ra's hand. The results are bizarre or surreal duets, trios, or ensemble movements with instruments that either contrast each other strongly or blend in awkward and glaring ways. My favorite example is when Ra pairs Robert Cummings' woodblocks and his own bass marimba with Boykins' already prominent acoustic bass. These two or three instruments fuse almost completely and very nearly produce the illusion of a single instrument, but their distinct timbres and colors keep them from having an entirely happy marriage.
I originally thought Sun Ra was seeking to create or highlight diversity and disparity in his music. The failure of his instruments to blend completely emphasized that, but so did the clumsy melodic phrases and tottering rhythms. Time, greater familiarity with Ra's music, and a little studying have changed my mind, and I now think the opposite is true. Boykins' bass playing on "The Sun Myth" is like nothing I've heard in jazz; it resembles the bowing of a bass in a classical orchestra more strongly than anything in jazz. And the loud percussion passages sound like a child's first drum lesson, but the Arkestra manages to force these two unlikely partners into a striking, if coarse, unity. Elsewhere, Ra pits shrieking saxophones against a background of swirling cymbals and buzzing electronic tones. Convention suggests these elements can't or shouldn't be paired, but the Arkestra miraculously draws them together. Their success depends both on Ra's guidance and on each musician's finely honed abilities; such abstract and spontaneous playing is neither easy nor natural. The resulting moods are sometimes tense, other times meditative, and frequently humorous or playful. Only rarely can the Arkestra be said to play as a band in any traditional sense. Parts of the third volume, as well as "Cosmic Chaos" and "Of Heavenly Things," feature a tighter logic and more coherent sense of counterpoint, so those songs make a more immediate kind of sense. But, for much of the record, we listeners are required to explore the depths of their expectations and interpretive skills in order to encounter the Arkestra's power and philosophy fully.
That's one of several reasons these records have taken such a hold on me. Their fluid character is another. Written and performed in the middle of New York City during the 1960s, Ra was automatically placed among the free jazz moguls of the time, but very few of these songs sound like jazz compositions at all, free or otherwise. I do hear fragments of jazz's past, but classical music, noise, tape collage, and other early electronic phrasings and expressions are present, too . I can't offer a better categorization, but I tend to agree with the theory that these records were filed under free jazz because nobody knew what else to call them.
Unfortunately, ESP Disk has done little to support the wonder and depth of Ra's music. This three disc set promises a lot and pretends to make good on them with an attractive outer sleeve and smartly distributed index of songs. Each of the three volumes gets its own disc, meaning none of them are muddled by bonus songs and none of them flow into each other unnaturally. When a disc ends, the album ends, too, and I applaud ESP's decision to keep each record distinct in that way. The original artwork for each album is also represented, although they're all tucked away beneath transparent CD trays. Still, unfolding the box set reveals a neat and simple layout. It's not the most attractive presentation in the world, but it functions well and I'm not sure how I would change it to make it any better. However, there's no booklet included with this set, and that's the first big problem I have with it. Extensive liner notes are nowhere to be found and only the most meager information about these records is provided on the back panel. Considering Sun Ra's ever-increasing popularity and the scope of the Arkestra's history, I'm surprised there wasn't more information provided up front. Things continue to deteriorate as I scan what little information is provided. Sun Ra's electronic keyboard, the "clavioline," is misspelled "clavoline" and the song "Of Heavenly Things" is misprinted as "Oh Heavenly Things." Additionally, "piccolo" is spelled as "picolo" on the back cover. These are small complaints, but they make the package feel cheaper and more hastily assembled than it should.
An impressive lineup of bonus features could make up for these mistakes, but calling any of the extras a bonus would be stretching it a bit.The first disc contains a roughly 16-minute "documentary" titled Spaceways. It's less a documentary film and more a piece of propaganda for Sun Ra's philosophy and ideas. If any of the bonuses are going to appeal to a Sun Ra fan, this is the one, but much of what Ra has to say can be found in books about him or in articles easily found on the Internet. Furthermore, the quality of the audio and video is low, probably because it was pulled from the original film without any effort given to improving its sometimes murky dialog and overall grainy picture. The second disc contains a "Sun Ra Photo Archive" that is little more than 12 JPEG files. A few of those files are images of the album covers, which are widely available everywhere and featured prominently in the set's artwork already. The other images may have their own value, but hardly constitute an archive. The critical writings "archive" on the third disc is a collection of Acrobat files containing reviews from publications large and small, including a Rolling Stone interview, a couple of brief mentions in The New York Times, and liner notes for all three volumes. Two of the reviews are very well written, reproduced clearly, and provide helpful information about the Heliocentric recordings. The remainder are poor scans of newspaper articles. The Rolling Stone feature could be a good read, but features tiny text and fuzzy image quality, which makes reading it tedious. Worse yet, the liner notes for each record, which should have been printed in a separate booklet (or at least somewhere in the box set itself), are included as part of this "archive." This isn't just cheap, it's insulting. ESP are basically lying to their audience about the content of their bonus material by including basic and necessary information for any good box set as a "bonus" feature. That's a lot like giving a giant middle finger to the consumer.
Having some of Sun Ra's best music made more readily available is truly exciting and a blessing. So much of his music is rarer than it should be. But the artwork, details, and presentation of that music should be treated with as much reverence and care as the music itself is.