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SUN SONG (Delmark DD-411) [1957]

SOUND OF JOY (Delmark DD 414) [1957]

JAZZ IN SILHOUETTE (Evidence ECD 22012-2) [1958]


There are so many Sun Ra albums out there today: Evidence alone has released sixteen, and there are at least an equal number available from a variety of other labels. And I'm speaking only of CDs. There are even more LPs. Ra in the course of his lifetime released hundreds of LPs on his own Saturn label, many of them sold in blank jackets at his live gigs and concerts, and others through legitimate record labels like Savoy and Impulse. It's enough to drive collectors crazy.

The key to understanding Sun Ra's music is that it divides rather sharply into two styles and eras. Although he covered a lot of ground in the fifties, as the 2-CD set of his singles issued by Evidence (not reviewed here) indicates with its r&b and pop tracks, Ra's first period was what one commentator called "big band hard bop" very much akin to the kind of forward-looking big band jazz being made by Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus in that same period. In the sixties he changed his approach radically -- from tight, composed, complex big band arrangements to "free jazz" -- spacey, modal, free-form excursions into the aether. It's usually easy to tell which kind of music can be found on a Sun Ra album by checking the number of tracks on that album. If there are close to a dozen tracks, it's likely to belong in the first era. If there are only a few, it is without question a part of the second era.

Which you prefer will depend on your personal taste. I prefer the first era myself; I have a hard time not regarding most of the free-jazz Ra produced as self-indulgent bullshit -- not withstanding the fact that I saw that version of his band live several times and have entirely too many of its albums on my shelf. (Late in his career Ra also made a few piano albums and made a semi-return to his roots.)

Sun Ra was a Chicago-area piano player and a protege of the pioneer big band leader/arranger Fletcher Henderson. He took on the name of Sun Ra relatively early in his career, and in the fifties began assembling a band, some of the members of which would stay with him for virtually his whole career, not unlike Harry Carney with Duke Ellington. The core of that band was Art Hoyle and Dave Young on trumpets, Julian Priester on trombone, and Pat Patrick and John Gilmore on saxes. Priester went on to play with Max Roach. Hobart Dotson came in later on trumpet; he would go on to play with Mingus. John Gilmore was a seminal influence on John Coltrane.

Ra began by recording himself, for his own Saturn label. Virtually all of his early self-recordings have been released -- along with many later ones -- by Evidence. But his first releases for another label were on Transition.

Transition was the Harvard MBA project of Tom Wilson. Wilson deserves a write-up of his own; his is an extraordinary story in its own right. A young, ambitious black entrepreneur, Wilson became one of the first independent record producers, moving from jazz into rock in the sixties and producing not only Bob Dylan but the first album by Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention (to whom he gave that name; they had been The Mothers). He died in the late seventies in London. I met him in 1960, when he was packaging six hours of jazz programming nightly on a New York City FM station. I became a columnist for his program guide, JAZZ GUIDE, and Tom and I became good friends.

Transition as a label lasted only a few years -- roughly from 1957 to 1959 -- but released a number of important recordings. The first I encountered as a consumer was a $1.98 sampler, JAZZ IN TRANSITION, which introduced me to both Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. Each made his debut with a Transition album. (Taylor's JAZZ ADVANCE is now on CD from Blue Note.) Ra's was JAZZ BY SUN RA Vol. 1. It has been released (as an LP in 1968 and on CD in 1990) on the Chicago Delmark label as SUN SONG. In this form the album includes an "unreleased" track called "Swing A Little Taste," which is the track used on JAZZ IN TRANSITION. Ra recorded a second album for Transition, intended to be released as JAZZ BY SUN RA Vol. 2, but it was never released, a victim of Transition's own death. Delmark released it on LP in 1968 and on CD in 1994 as SOUND OF JOY. The CD version has two added tracks, a contemporaneous single, featuring vocalist Clyde Williams.


The packaging of SUN SONG is typical of Sun Ra: nearly incoherent, with soloist credits intermixed with "cosmic" lyrics and meandering philosophizing by Ra -- an offputting melange of words and graphics which is not helped by the circular design of the jewel box's back cover, which gives the track listings and personnel in a form not easy to read at a glance. But the recording is sharp and vivid -- a good example of the pre-stereo state of the art -- and the music is astonishingly good. Imagine a band with Count Basie's swing, Charles Mingus' polytonal melodicism, and strong solists who can advance the melodic theme while carving out their personal interpretations. Ra's music in this period might be called "surreal swing." It drew upon the bop vocabulary that was by then more than ten years old and had been absorbed into the mainstream of jazz by the mid-fifties. Melodic lines could be either angular and suggestive of colliding tonalities, or pretty in the bittersweet way pioneered by Mingus. Ra was one of the first to incorporate electric bass into a jazz band (circa 1956), using it alongside a second, upright accoustic bass, where it added a unique twanging sound to the bottom end. The titles of some of the pieces suggest Ra's approach: "Brainville," "Transition," "Progression," "Future," and "New Horizons," for example. I was a big fan in those days of both Ellington and Mingus, and as far as I was concerned Sun Ra belonged on the same shelf with those giants of composed jazz.

SOUND OF JOY is somewhat disappointing, following on the tail of SUN SONG. The material is weaker, the textures thinner. And the added closing track, the vocal, "Dreams Come True," is as lugubrious as some of Ellington's attempts at pop song stylings. Wilson recorded the album in November of 1957, but held it back from release, wanting something stronger.

JAZZ IN SILHOUETTE, recorded by Ra in 1958, is that stronger album, containing some of his most memorable works, including the brilliant "Enlightenment," cowritten by Hobart Dotson. I bought a copy of this album in 1959. Like the Transition albums, this Saturn release used a "blank" jacket with a silkscreened cover pasted on its front and had a blank back cover. The "sleeve notes" were in a booklet tucked inside. Transition's booklets were photo-offset. The booklet for Saturn's JAZZ IN SILHOUETTE was hectographed, with color crayon drawings by Ra. One can produce at best around 50 copies on a hectograph; the crayon drawings were of course done individually -- and quite probably differently -- on each copy. That makes my copy of the LP of this album unique -- as were all the others of that pressing, only the first of several. Evidence reissued this album on CD in 1991 as part of an extensive series of Sun Ra reissues. (It was also reissued in 1975 as an LP by Impulse.) Evidence claims the cover on this CD is "its original," but it's an ugly and amateurish drawing and nothing like the cover on my copy of the Saturn LP, unfortunately.


If you were to get only two Sun Ra albums from this era, I'd emphatically recommend SUN SONG and JAZZ IN SILHOUETTE. The latter is a bit more colorful and impressionistic than the former, but both are powerful albums, and SILHOUETTE celebrates the extranordinary and undersung talents of trumpeter Dotson, whose other triumphs are noted in Francis Davis' excellent sleeve essay.

Tom Wilson continued his activity as a record producer after Transition's failure. He recorded a Coltrane/Cecil Taylor album for United Artists (which was subsequently released as a Coltrane album and later yet as a Taylor album, as the fortunes of each artist rose and fell) and then moved on to Savoy in the last years of that label's life, recording THE FUTURISTIC SOUNDS OF SUN RA for Savoy in 1961. Here the middle-eastern chants and colors of SILHOUETTE -- the first forecast of the directions Ra would pursue later -- are carried a step further. This album is the transitional album between the big band compositions of earlier Ra and the spaced out music to come.

Because, remarkably, Ra held onto the same musicians for this transition, and those musicians adapted well to the change. The winds of Ornette Coleman were blowing across the jazz landscape. Many rejected his "harmelodicism" the same way moldy figs had rejected bop (calling it, derisively, "Chinese music"), claiming Coleman could not play his instrument. But Coleman opened a door. The first through it was Eric Dolphy, but many others would follow, such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago and a great many more.

Sun Ra had been writing complex and demanding charts. His music demanded intense rehearsal, and a knack for improvising simultaneously in more than one key. But the shift to "space music" meant an end to all that work. No rehearsals at all were necessary. Elaborate and silly costumes were donned, and the musicians would enter the room chanting, evoking a tribal ritual. "Space is the place."

I'm well aware that Sun Ra's "space music" has its own following -- and that it constituted the vast majority of his work and recordings (from the early sixties to the mid-eighties). It is not without its appeal, even to me, although I enjoyed it more live than I ever have on record. But I regret that a prodigious talent for complex and fascinating compositions was squandered and abandoned by the man who was born as Sonny Blount and was far better known as Sun Ra. Check out SUN SONG and JAZZ IN SILHOUETTE to see what I mean. Timeless music, as fresh now as it was in the fifties.

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