Friday, April 19, 2019

Sun Ra - 1959 - Jazz in Silhouette

Sun Ra
Jazz in Silhouette

01. Enlightenment (Stereo) 05:05
02. Saturn 03:41
03. Velvet (Stereo) 03:23
04. Ancient Aiethopia (Stereo) 09:17
05. Hours After (Stereo) 03:46
06. Horoscope 03:46
07. Images (In a Mirror) 03:51
08. Blues at Midnight 11:56

"In tomorrow's world, men will not need artificial instruments such as jets and space ships. In the world of tomorrow, the new man will 'think' the place he wants to go, then his mind will take him there."
— Jazz in Silhouette 1959 album notes

Recorded 1958–1959

Sun Ra (piano)
Hobart Dotson (trumpet)
Bo Bailey (trombone)
James Spaulding (alto sax, flute, percussion)
Marshall Allen (alto sax, flute)
Pat Patrick (baritone sax, flute, percussion)
John Gilmore (tenor sax, percussion)
Charles Davis (baritone sax)
Ronnie Boykins (bass)
William Cochran (drums)

If you want the most essential record reflecting Sun Ra's Chicago period during the 1950s, THIS IS IT. Recorded in Chicago in 1958 or 1959, Jazz In Silhouette essentially closes Sun Ra's bebop/hard-bop periods, as his interstellar traveler persona began to vividly evolve in the early 1960s. Once he moved to New York in 1961, he began to explore more adventurous musical terrain.

Jazz In Silhouette opens with the Ra composition “Enlightenment” (which also appears on the album Sound Sun Pleasure, which wasn't issued until 1970; all tracks from both albums were recorded at the same sessions). “Enlightenment” would remain a staple in Arkestra concerts for the rest of Sunny's life. “Saturn,” “Velvet,” “Horoscope,” “Images (In A Mirror),” and “Blues At Midnight” showcase tenor saxophonist John Gilmore and the rest of the band taking straightforward, but inventive hard-bop solos. "Horoscope" is credited to pianist Mary Lou Williams (a big influence on Sunny), from her 1945 “Zodiac Suite.” On the album closer, an extended “Blues At Midnight,” each horn soloist stretches out as in a live club performance.

On Jazz in Silhouette, Sun Ra and the band radiate the period's Chicago jazz sound, with lilting melodies, intertwining chords, and surprising dynamic shifts. Sunny's compositions demonstrate his ability to write memorable songs in the jazz tradition. As evidenced by the arrangements, at this point in his career Sunny is already somewhat "out there," but it wasn't until he reached New York that he became completely untethered.

This remastered edition of Jazz in Silhouette, prepared for the Sun-tennial in 2014, includes the premiere release of four tracks in full stereo. Every prior edition of the album was 100% monophonic. One stereo session tape was discovered by Michael D. Anderson of the Sun Ra Music Archive; the album's second stereo reel, unfortunately, is damaged and cannot be reproduced.

Additional session notes on Jazz in Silhouette from The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra, by Robert L. Campbell and Christopher Trent (2nd ed., 2000):

Nate Pryor (who was supposed to be on this session but arrived too late) recalls that the studio was located off the Outer Drive, somewhere near Grand Avenue. Alton Abraham has said that RCA Victor Studios and a studio with a name like “Balladine” were used for Saturn sessions. Bill Fielder says Bo Bailey was on this session, not Julian Priester as stated on the Impulse issue. (The incorrect listing could have come about because Bo Bailey “wasn’t straight with the Union,” as Nate Pryor says). Thanks to Allan Chase for recognizing the role of the mouthpieces in “Ancient Aeithopia.” In the first edition of this discography, Sunny was credited with playing his Wurlitzer electric piano on the introduction to “Ancient Aethiopia,” but more careful listening suggests that he was emulating his Wurlitzer style on a regular piano! The wordless vocal during this same piece includes John Gilmore and Ronnie Boykins, but the most prominent voice belongs to another Arkestra member.

In the jazz universe, Sun Ra typically travels in an unknown, distant galaxy of his own. He is on the map, but understood and given his proper significance by only a loyal few. Most know his esoteric philosophising, lavish stage shows, and outward-bound music, but those features only scratch the surface of Ra’s music. Recorded in 1958, Jazz in Silhouette stands as an overlooked masterpiece, a work that shows Ra not as a mere curiosity or backwater galaxy, but as a major creative force in the jazz universe, a center of gravity around which many of jazz’s major developments have orbited.

This album simply inspires, no matter what perspective you adopt: rhythm, melody, ensemble or mood. You can listen to John Gilmore sculpt his solo on “Saturn” with sensitivity and flair, or Hobart Dotson extemporize with grace and wit on the two-beat gospel number “Hours After”.

Or you could listen to how Ra integrates all of his marvelous sidemen with the intent of creating a bold yet highly disciplined group sound. Ra ingeniously weaves together the nostalgic, almost sentimental themes and counter-themes that make up Hobart Dotson’s “Enlightenment”, and in doing so he transforms the material from the everyday to something transcendent. On “Saturn” he subtly blends the abstract melody and rapid propulsion of bebop with more conventional big band themes without sacrificing the essential character of either. The tune swings hard and the soloists still create challenging lines.

Ra and the Arkestra continually invent intriguing rhythmic ideas, like on the burning “Velvet”. The rhythm section plays in a brisk 4/4 while the rest of the ensemble deftly navigates an arrangement that seems intent on creating confusion with irregular accents and off-balance phrases. But the Arkestra plays so precisely that they create weightlessness instead, and one cannot help but be uplifted by their force.

Continuing the inventive rhythmic interplay is the dark “Ancient Aiethopia”. However, unlike the other compositions, it lacks any harmonic progression, and Ra foregrounds the varied percussion that the Arkestra was starting to utilize at this time. Most importantly, it points towards the direction the Arkestra would head in the next decade. Namely, the Arkestra begins to blur the distinction between rhythm and melody, thereby creating more freedom in the ways that both could develop. Ra himself has stated that the two are inseparable. Here, Boykins' bass, the floor toms and Ra’s left hand set up an interlocking pulse. Ominous brass figures and a percussive flute solo follow, then Dotson builds a penetrating solo on the prevailing mood of mystery and distance. Ra most distinctively blurs the rhythm/melody line in an interlude that grows out Dotson’s melodic ideas, yet still forcefully follows the pulse pattern already established.

Jazz in Silhouette shows Ra doing what he did like few others: looking at the past, present and future simultaneously while maintaining a unified musical direction. Ra’s Arkestra swings intricate big band charts worthy of Ellington, never forgetting their blues roots. They precisely play angular bop melodies in an orchestra setting. They explore the wide-open modal frontier that was opening up and also foreshadow the prominent role percussion would play in the coming years. Combine these elements with bold solos that gleam with warmth and precision, splashes of Afro-Cuban rhythms and Ra’s imaginative writing- what results is a captivating set of music that not only firmly establishes Ra in the jazz tradition, but actually puts him on its leading edge, pointing the direction forward.

One of the definitive "what the shit" experiences. Even though the songs have the sort of titles you'd expect from the space music - "Horoscope," "Saturn," "Enlightenment" and "Ancient Aiethopia" all present and accounted for - the music here is downright conventional and mostly concise, with only the two side-closers breaking the nine minute mark. I mean, for fuck's sake, "Hours After" is straight-up swing, while "Enlightenment" is pretty conventional post-bop. You might not be surprised at the lack of funk or synthesizers, given the release date and all, but there are no chants either, and the songs are mostly head-solo-head. What, you might wonder, is going on here? "Horoscope" isn't Sun Ra. "Images" isn't Sun Ra.

The thing is, it's damn enjoyable anyway, even if the only hints of "Space is the Place" come in the form of "Ancient Aiethopia." The band Ra assembled plays excellently together, frequently bolstering the melodies with sympathetic and complex horn arrangements. This is, basically, a small combo bop record arranged for big band, which means you get the best of both worlds: the terrific arrangements and easygoing spirit of the best big band matched with the psychic communication of the best small combo. "Midnight Blues" is a great example of this, as it features some great horn charts in the heads but is more interested in those solos, all of which smoke.

There are hints of what would come afterwards, though. "Enlightenment" is more about mood and groove than melody or solos, slinking around various tempos and whatnot. Unsurprisingly, it went onto become a concert favorite, and apparently the group added vocals, which probably had something or other to do with space. Or acid. Sun Ra must've been a big acid fan, right? Anyway, the other odd one is "Ancient Aiethopia," which uses odd horn motifs and a lot of low end to create the sort of unique experience Ra would later specialize in. It also features an atmospheric instrumental segment, and while it doesn't have the flow or groove of "Space is the Place," it's still a solid composition.

And you know? I think I enjoy this most out of all the Sun Ra I've heard. Now, there's some Sun Ra I haven't heard for a long time and a lot of Sun Ra I haven't heard at all, so I imagine I'll go on a Ra binge in the coming days and see if that's still the truth or not. As of now, though, this comes off as the guy's most consistent release, even though it has nothing to do with his later work. Check it out.