Review: Sun Ra, “The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra” (3CD set)

note: this is a re-edited version of a review that first appeared on Brainwashed.com in October of 2010

ESP Disk’s most recent re-issue of the now well-known Heliocentric Worlds records is haphazard and sloppy, offering only the smallest improvements over their last re-issue from 2005. Fledgling Ra listeners will be happy to find all three volumes together in one package—this time on three distinct discs—but everyone else will probably be disappointed by the lackluster bonus material, mediocre packaging, and poorly edited liner notes. Anyone who owns all three albums already can safely ignore this release, the rest of us can bemoan its poor presentation.

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, well-known for his abilities on the sax, bassist Ronnie Boykins, and baritone sax player Pat Patrick, who is Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s father.

Roughly 19 instruments find their way onto this 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 and a legendary status, as well. 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 CityThe 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.

Listening to Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, it is difficult not to focus on their fragmented and clumsy ensemble and solo passages. Most of the Arkestra spend their time stumbling over—and sometimes through—their instruments, producing atonal passages of a childish quality. For long stretches of time, very little attention is paid to structure, melody, or rhythm. Initially, fitting my head inside the tympani and bass duets of “Heliocentric” or the drunken clavioline and piano fights on “Nebulae” was extremely difficult. The alien quality of Ra’s music on Heliocentric Worlds is incredibly strong, and listening to it can be like catching a sucker punch.

When in unfamiliar territory, I like to look for something I recognize, no matter how vaguely, and use it as a compass until I become more comfortable with my surroundings. The closest I can get to the Heliocentric Worlds is early Nurse with Wound records, because Ra’s sudden tempo changes and unusual instrumentation produce effects and contrasting textures that remind me of the tape collages Steve Stapleton once produced. But, after listening more closely and reading some helpful articles, I tapped into Ra’s private language and into the hidden structures guiding the Arkestra’s performances, and subsequently into the beauty and originality of the Heliocentric sound.

Ra performed multiple duties on all three Heliocentric records, but his primary duty was that of the conductor’s. Even when Ra isn’t playing, his presence and compositional strategies are conspicuous, so listening involves following Ra just as much as it involves following the musicians’s performances. One of Ra’s primary methods involves pairing instruments together and providing them with loose performance rules. For instance, Ra would instruct Boykins to bow his bass instead of plucking it, or he would tell trombonist Teddy Nance to play long, whole notes against any series of rapidly moving ones. Either musician would then be paired with another instrumentalist, who was also instructed to play according to similar laws.

Each unit thus solos together, but only according to Ra’s directing hand. Moods and ideas also serve as a foundation for each member’s performance, so that Ra sometimes composes by intimation rather than by direct means. Consequently, in one instant trombone and sax are playing wildly together, and in the next moment the wood blocks and marimba are mimicking each other.

As a result of this strategy, much of the record is populated by bizarre duets and trios, or by ensemble movements with instruments that either contrast  strongly or blend in awkward and glaring ways. My favorite example is when Ra pairs his own bass marimba with Robert Cummings’s woodblocks and Boykins’s prominent acoustic bass. These two or three instruments share enough common features that they almost fuse together, very nearly producing the sound of a single instrument. But, their distinct timbres and colors stay distinct, and instead of a total fusion what we hear is an imperfect sound that vibrates with unique colors and textures.

At first, I wondered where Sun Ra was going with all his mismatched dissonance and instrumental disarray. The failure of his instruments to blend completely emphasizes discord and disturbance, as do the many clumsy melodic phrases and tottering rhythms. I decided that difference, antagonism, variance, and division were Ra’s primary subjects; my guess was that he aimed to reproduce in music the social and political troubles that so many other musicians mined for their own song-writing. Instead of commenting on unpopular wars or social unrest, however, Ra turned it into sound, as if the Arkestra were a recording device and not a performing group.

But, over time, I’ve come to believe that the opposite is true and that what Ra was getting at was unity, harmony, solidarity, and individuality. Here’s why.

Boykins’s bass playing on “The Sun Myth” is like nothing I’ve heard in jazz; he spends much of his time bowing it, which means most of the time he sounds like he belongs in a classical orchestra and not in a jazz group. At the other extreme is Ra’s percussion ensemble: they all play as though they’d never seen a snare drum before and are taking their first drum lessons in the studio. Elsewhere, Ra pits shrieking saxophones against a background of swirling cymbals and buzzing electronic tones, which highlights just how unique they sound. One consequence is that nearly every instrument shares an equal amount of space in the stereo: there’s no threat of any instrument getting lost in the haze of the performance.

In every case, the Arkestra’s instruments are treated as being sufficient unto themselves, but they’re constantly forced into a group context, no matter how uncomfortable. They never blend perfectly, but they manage to co-exist and produce a sound together that they could never accomplish by themselves. Ra effectively makes soloing a group activity, so that it isn’t soloing at all.

Convention suggests that these various instruments and sounds can’t or shouldn’t be paired, but the Arkestra miraculously draws them together and produces everything from violent noise to comedic exchanges in the process. The theme is unity, but not the homogenizing kind. Ra wanted something closer to the real thing, the kind of unity you get when people from different backgrounds come together and share ideas. This is why the instruments only half-bend to one another; they’re all sharing the same stage, but they each have something original to say. Ra makes this a musical reality by keeping their colors brilliant, even within the group.

As a result, the Arkestra rarely plays anything like conventional jazz, and after listening to these records many, many times, I believe that’s because Ra sought to express something conventional music isn’t capable of expressing. 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, listeners are required to explore the depths of their expectations and interpretive skills in order to appreciate 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 counted among the free jazz moguls already populating the city, but very few of his songs sound like jazz compositions at all, free or otherwise. I do hear fragments of jazz, but classical music, noise, tape collage, and other early electronic phrasings and expressions are all present, as well. 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, 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 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 impress 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 re-mastering efforts. The audio is murky throughout and the video is grainy, even on my 16″ laptop monitor.

The second disc contains a “Sun Ra Photo Archive” that is little more than 12 JPEG files. A few of the 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 they 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 releases by including basic and necessary information for any good box set as a “bonus” feature.

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.

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2 comments

  1. [...] THE LAUGHTER ARCHIVES Listening to Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, it is difficult not to focus on their fragmented and clumsy ensemble and solo passages. Most of the Arkestra spend their time stumbling over—and sometimes through—their instruments, producing atonal passages of a childish quality. [...]

  2. […] THE LAUGHTER ARCHIVESListening to Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, it is difficult not to focus on their fragmented and clumsy ensemble and solo passages. Most of the Arkestra spend their time stumbling over—and sometimes through—their instruments, producing atonal passages of a childish quality. […]

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