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Following the Stars
By Anthony Mariani


Sun Ra has revealed the inner beauty of inner space; recent reissues and previously "lost" recordings give testimony

"Improvisation" was what I would call a moment of guitar practice when my undertrained fingers would fudge a note. Whoops, I’d say – and my instructor would laugh – doing a little improv there. The notion was that improvisation – not in the pop-rock gee-tar solo sense but in a confrontational way – was an unplanned and certainly artless and boring act of God. As random and "uninformative" as waves at the beach, occasional misunderstandings between my mind (and, dare we say, heart) and my hands were glitches that needed fixing. Nothing more. After all, rules had been broken. Technique had been compromised. I was, by my sloppiness, disgraced into solving this contraption of wood and string that had been designed, or so I thought at times, to mute my soul. If ever I was to have an audience, mistakes – "improvisations" – were to be eliminated. Completely.

Funny now how at an older age the genius in being able to "play" a mistake is gold. And it’s not just being able to stumble across the wrong idea when hitting the right note that gets us improvisational players jazzed; it’s knowing where to go on the fretboard – or keyboard or saxophone – to enable what we think we hear floating around in our heads. That’s the right stuff. Sun Ra, by virtue of his years of recordings, must have understood this. Hell, he lived it.

From the moment he stopped playing backup piano for R&B groups in the late-1940s till he embarked on a very self-motivated, very religious and very sonorous excursion as part-time improvisationist, part-time serious jazz conductor throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and until his death in the early-‘90s, Ra realized that simply being in a position to make mistakes – hands at the ready on tops of keys or fingers poised along strings or knuckles wrapped around sticks – hardly qualified as improv, as a revelation of a player’s inner spirit. He knew that true improvisational skill meant having the technical proficiency to intend to coerce humanity out of six strings or 88 keys. His sonic experiments show us that players, at the peak of their powers, can intend to play random notes perfectly – and produce for listeners a hyper-charged catharsis in the meantime. There might not be very many recordings that offer as much aesthetic truth as Sun Ra’s.

If this sounds like I’m arguing against the fact that some people consider experimental improvisation artless it’s because I am. Sonic art, performance art, noise are indefensible in so much as they’re derivative of what’s close to me, making music and, as of this writing, listening to Sun Ra, whose primary works were reissued a few months ago by Evidence Music, the label that has also just issued some previously unreleased Ra work. It’s aggressive improvisation, near to the metaphorical act of shaping the highway as you drive along at 85 mph., that always seems to need rescuing from being misunderstood or, worse, ignored, and it’s what Ra does best. These recordings, which have earned a close, conscientious listen, find Ra addressing the question of improvisation’s quality directly. From here on out, let’s defer any questions pertaining to artistic honesty to his work.

The most noticeable way Ra proved deliberate, "cued" improvisations could be aesthetically valid was by being humorous which made for a wonderful backdrop for his other moods of gloom, confusion, mystery, remorse and most anything else that makes us droop our shoulders. Whatever he did, his use of humor – an entirely humanizing, civilizing conceit – demonstrated that he wasn’t too self-conscious to try to evoke a smile from the listener’s lips. Some of the most engaging, downright spacey and completely playful moments of some of Ra’s work are when members of his outfit, the Arkestra, play off each other (the playfulness of the gives-and-takes is downright tasty) or when they sing-talk in unison. A lyric like "the next stop, Mahhhs" (Mars) (from "Next Stop Mars," off When Angels Speak of Love), sung deadpan over and over without any instrumental accompaniment, can’t help but make a listener think of some silly Ed Wood space flick. And Ra’s humor extended to his offstage self and his belief, which may or may have not been funny to the maestro, that he had come from Saturn. Simply seeing this burly black man (born Herman Sonny Blount in Alabama) in one of his trademarked space suits betrayed even the music’s most cerebral, self-indulgent spasms. It wouldn’t be too presumptuous to suggest that Ra’s quirky personality – in tune with his quirky playing and arranging – possibly endeared him to lots of fans. It did this one. (And don’t carp about "judging the poem, not the poet." Sometimes lives are poetic, too.)

The technical genius of Ra and his players’ work buoys the validity of the sound. You won’t hear the clatter of incompetents noodling on his records. Rather, you’ll hear serious improvisationists and expressionists in the context of delivering sonic statements in a straightforward fashion. In other words, it’s not as if Ra’s players are blowing into the ass-ends of their horns or banging their drums with maracas (though Ra did "invent" the Neptunian libflecto, a bassoon with no double reed input but with either a French horn or alto sax mouthpiece). These players were definitely averse to simple noise and/or noise making. To wit: Trap drummer Clifford Jarvis will roll and tumble across the entire landscape of a tune like "Ecstasy of Being," off When Angels Speak of Love. It’s an endurance test, the way Jarvis continues spurring back and forth across the skins without hardly ever dipping into non-musical gestures or basically fucking up (i.e., clicking his sticks together, losing control of his rolls, hitting heads at the same time during the middle of rolls, etc.). Every Arkestra member was up to similar challenges.

Traveling the spaceways, testing the limits of musical instruments, was – with Ra – a group experience, with each member carrying his own share of the load. We’re all in this spaceship together could have been their motto. This sense of team, of camaraderie, also proved most of Ra’s music as significant; meaningful within its socio-political context. Staying together (and there isn’t enough space here to reference every period pop song that proclaimed the value of indeed "staying together") meant that Ra’s band members could forget themselves for the sake of the team. This sentiment loudly registers in the music. Like in "The World of the Invisible," off Cymbals (a previously unreleased recording from 1973 now issued by Evidence), hear how superb and grossly underrated bassist Ronnie Boykins and Ra, on the keys, trade elongated slides in the heat of sparing. BOWWW goes Ra’s organ; BUHHH goes Boykins’ bass. When Ra finally leaves Boykin, the bassist emits a couple more slides just to let the keyboardist know he could rejoin the game any second. (There’s almost a desperate resignation in Boykins’ final BUHHHHH.) You can certainly feel the spontaneous energy passing back and forth between them; two lovers entwined in conversation about God.

Ra’s music, which he refused to call "free jazz" ("there is no freedom in the universe," he once said), was and remains – though occasionally slipshod and more raw than Puppy Chow – the lighthearted, technically accomplished legacy of a free thinker. This outsiderness was even reflected in the way Ra produced, recorded and distributed his records (which was mainly through his own independent imprint Saturn). Though he had in 1973 inked a deal with the mighty Impulse!, home of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, the relationship was short-lived and Ra would have to wait until 1988 before ever releasing a major label record (this time with A&M). Which isn’t to say Ra didn’t sell any records, because he did, primarily through Saturn and with the off and on help of distributors like Royal Disk, BASF and BYG and Shandar. Talk about DIY spirit: Ra and Arkestra members hand-designed album jackets. They lived together in communes and all practiced the religion of music. What punk rock posturings had Sun Ra wrought.

Your guitar instructor will tell you that improvisation is about telling a story. You state your theme, you elaborate on it (all under the basic scale of the larger song), you riff on it, and finally you restate your theme again, this time a few octaves higher. But what about a story that doesn’t rely on coherence, that relies on the sentiments beneath seemingly abstruse, incoherent musings? Where’s the drama? Where’s that intangible quality that makes us want to listen further? Well, with most of Ra’s best improvisational work, the drama is indeed in the mode of expression. Anyone with a mind for understanding others can easily digest Ra or John Gilmore or Marshall Allen or Eloe Omoe or any other of Ra’s horn players as they simply go off; or play "outside" the music. It’s in the way Kwame Hadi takes you down one path with his muted trumpet on the title track to Pathways to Unknown Worlds, then turns around, admonishes you with a flurry of crisp descending notes, then grabs you by the hand on a wind-kissed melody. Never knowing what to expect next – and caring about what happens next because you care about music, about jazz – makes for mighty fine hi-fidelity fidelity.

(Granted, part of the reason we’re engaged with such sounds is because of the instruments themselves; each with its own "baggage," so to speak, or potentialities. The sax, potentially aggressive and, in the hands of pop stars, sexy; the drums, primitive, visceral; the organ, melancholic; the trumpet, beboppy, fun; and so on. Yet to believe Ra didn’t understand this and didn’t want to demolish every preconceived notion of an instrument’s historically weighted purpose is to deny the maestro an unprejudiced listen. Though it’s not proper to assume, let’s make this one; for the sake of the music calls out to us.)

If listening to music is really about recapturing or reliving memories then Ra is about introducing listeners to the Now, open and full of possibilities. What could be more dramatic?

In getting at truth – and Ra was known as a taskmaster to his players or "disciples" – and then having fun with it Ra also raised questions of race, class and ego. Political ideas, though never spoken directly, percolate throughout nearly every phrase. Every buzzing, screaming, whispering organ tone does what we consider aesthetically legitimate art to do, confront the listener and inspire him to reflect on himself (though Ra often said his intent was to make listeners think of everything but themselves). Getting listeners to see and think about themselves, by the way, makes for some highly politically charged art. No pedantry here; no escapist narratives; just boundary-pushing, meditative music.

No artist pulled off in-your-face sonic art (not in the technical, gallery/museum-sense but in the literal one) better – or more early in jazz history – than Ra. And more than any other experimental player, Ra brought life and politics (unintentionally or not) to the fore by acting the part of the spaceman and exploring sounds that conjured up images of space in his work. (Listen to the twinkling keys off the title track to Lanquidity, able of conjuring up a universe of stars in languorous tempo.) Was Ra, by proclaiming his interplanetary birth, commenting on the condition of ostracized peoples? Was he, by setting himself (literally) above the inconveniences of race and class, seeing objectively into the culture unto which he had become significant and thus worthy of being heard? Or was Ra, by confounding paradigms and summoning up saxophones that sounded like what shooting stars looked like, thumbing his nose at the listening world (which had spread into parts of Europe and Asia), which had become so engrossed with simpler, more accessible forms of music and art? Some points to consider when listening to his work. (And when listening to Ra’s work, I recommend finding a quiet, comfortable place, preferably by a windowsill to a busy street below. And just watch. Contemplate the passing cars, the architecture of the surrounding buildings, the sky, the reflection of golden sunlight off a scrawny sidewalk tree. You’ll see and learn amazing things.)

Moreover, in speaking of Ra’s socio-political influence, the maestro’s music never reflected his identity as a black man but held a crystal clean mirror up to whoever partook in the sounds. Ra’s experimental music, like great abstract art, depended on the listener’s baggage for functionality. Politics, as part of everyday life, were sure to be "found" in nearly every dragged-down, propped-up note. Criticisms on Ra’s experiments were appropriately ambivalent; as ambivalent as those found in deliberations over vexing social issues or grotesque paintings. Where you fall on either side of the topic depends on where you are – or aren’t – in life.

What was distinctly "Ra" about his work was this desire to push boundaries further. Certainly the space motifs determined how listeners approached the music, but even the deeply experimental passages were illustrative of a longing for new sonic territory, to boldly go where no saxophone had ever gone before. Many of his instrumentalists were pushed into appropriating the sounds of rocket ships (see: above), new languages and solar explosions. Ra’s music says that by testing the limits of outer space we test the limits of ourselves. Pushing as far and as hard as we can, after all, shows us what we’re really made of. We can become Jello as in the latter part of "Sunrise in the Western Sky," a mellow sax reverie off Crystal Spears (previously unreleased). Or we can steel ourselves against the storm as on "Ecstasy of Being." These observations are all, of course, personal, though I doubt that anyone would dream of placid country sides when hearing horn player Akh Tal Ebah moan and wail on "The Mystery of Two," off Cymbals. His playing is that harmonically aggressive.

Ra not only handled experimental music earlier and better (more truthfully) than other like-minded jazzers, he also presented it more expertly. His musical and biographical references to space exploration touched something inside every Beatnik or head that longed for adventure. His costumes and downright geekiness also gave him camp appeal. Especially today, in this postmodern age in which irony has been commodified, there’s nothing cooler (and I admit, I’m as conscientious of cool as anyone else) than to be caught jamming to a Sun Ra disc on your headphones. Coltrane or Coleman? Too studious.

The fact is that Ra’s sound experiments can be perceived by the indignant as nonsense – but at least these recordings were approached by the auteur and his disciples truthfully. No matter what any smart listener thinks he hears in Ra, he doesn’t hear artifice. Never will.


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DUCTS summer issue 2001
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