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Sun Ra - Heliocentric Worlds, Vols. 1-3

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Artist: Sun Ra

Album: Heliocentric Worlds, Vols. 1-3

Label: ESP-Disk

Review date: Mar. 23, 2005

Much like Sun Ra himself, the history of ESP-Disk is one fraught with myth, conjecture and contention. Bernard Stollman, the label’s honcho, has his side of the story. The musicians he signed and recorded have their own varying accounts. Stollman’s been described as everything from an elusive phantom, to an avaricious opportunist, to a benevolent pioneer in the early documentation of American free jazz. Truth, as always, is subjective and likely lies somewhere near the intersection of these polemical cognomens.

Whatever the politics and back story the priceless body of organized sound held in the ESP’s vaults remains an irrefutable reality. Only the French BYG label (an imprint that shares a similarly factious track record when it comes to remunerating its roster) rivals it in terms of its breadth and scope of its coverage of 60s free jazz. Among the treasures are pivotal recordings by Albert Ayler, Marion Brown, Sonny Simmons, Frank Wright, Sunny Murray and a cadre of others, as well as key artifacts from the psychedelic avant folk scenes. Public access to the music over the years has paralleled the label’s piecemeal past. With the onset of the CD era, Stollman leased the source tapes to a succession of suitors. First there were the German ZYX editions. Then came Italian versions by Abraxas, and another series housed in stylized maroon cardboard slip-covers from the Calibre company out of the Netherlands.

Recently Stollman decided to re-launch the label himself. This trio of Ra records is among the first batch of reissues. Heliocentric Volumes 1 and 2 are paired on a single disc (a logical and consumer-friendly coupling not available in past editions) while Volume 3 stands alone. All three document a pared down Arkestra circa the spring 1965 for the first and the fall of the same year for two and three. Much of the music is chamber-style in mood and utilizes a fair amount of composition. There’s very little of the humor and élan of earlier and later Arkestral outings and the concentrated austerity and gravitas gets a bit heavy in places. Through a subtle sonic facelift both albums reveal fresh details, but the overall fidelity is still somewhat murky and recessed.

Vol. 1 comprises seven compositions; each tagged with appropriately cosmic titles like “Outer Nothingness” and “Nebulae.” Vol. 2 centers on two larger suite-like pieces, “The Sun Myth” and “Cosmic Chaos,” separated by a brief interstitial tone poem “The House of Beauty.” Together they present classic Copernican theory contextualized through the Ra musical lens. The usual horn troika of John Gilmore on tenor, Marshall Allen on alto, piccolo and flute and Pat Patrick on baritone forms the frontline nucleus. Bass clarinetist Robert Cummings and trumpeter Chris Capers (Vol. 1) also contribute superlative passages that advance the illusion of brooding interstellar travel. Both volumes reserve room for Ra’s darkly discordant piano clusters and his keys are especially bellicose on the densely patterned “Other Worlds.”

Of the two, I’ve long preferred Vol. 2. Its pair of extended excursions incorporate the spacey effects of Ra’s clavioline and tuned bongos and feature some of Boykins’ finest arco bass on record. Despite appearances on paper Ra’s forays on the Latin skins are far from farcical. With the aid of studio echo he crafts an otherworldly ping-pongy patter that ricochets within the cavernous studio space. Scripted for a smaller contingent of horns, the arrangements carry even stronger modern classical overtones. On Vol. 1 Ra’s bass marimba and electronic celeste consort with the supple pulse of Boykins’ peripatetic bass and the two erect luminous tonal lattices for the horns to hang upon. The duo is particularly effective on “The Cosmos” in concert with Gilmore’s burnished tenor. Noteworthy too is the relatively conservative application of standard drum kit. Roger Blank’s sticks frequently punctuate rather than propel and rhythms rise just as often through the blending of obliquely riffing horns and an undulating bed of percussive devices including tympani, woodblocks, bells and cymbals doubled on by members of the reeds section.

The truly momentous news though is Volume 3. Subtitled “The Lost Tapes” it offers material not previously available in any of ESP-Disk’s earlier incarnations. The centerpiece is a seventeen-minute episodic adventure that cycles through solo segments for Gilmore, Patrick and Allen, each in intense and exemplary form backed only by Ra, Boykins and Blank in various combinations. Eruptions of layered horn polyphony bracket the fulminating improvisations. Mid-piece the energy folds into a splenetic two-fisted improvisation from Ra as the horns circle in for a final rocket-fueled blowout and reverie-structured coda. The remaining four tracks form a microcosm of interests. The moody percussion thicket of “Mythology Metamorphosis,” serves as a return vehicle for Ra’s tuned bongos and marimba. Allen’s nasalized oboe and a strong pizzicato undercarriage by Boykins flesh the piece further. “Heliocentric Worlds” and “World Worlds” arrive like outtakes from an earlier 60s Arkestra album (say Fate in a Pleasant Mood or The Nubians of Plutonia) with structured themes and solos threaded by the horns and the Ra’s bright acoustic and electric chords between washes of cymbal-heavy percussion. “Interplanetary Travelers” employs Ra’s various keyboards as the cynosure of a grand, if brief, saturnalia of dissonant horn voicings and thickly boiling interplay.

These three Sun Ra albums rank among the most valuable pearls in the ESP-Disk catalog. Retooled under Stollman’s direct stewardship the label appears poised to return even more classic albums into circulation. The renewed enterprise will hopefully also spell explicit remuneration for the artists and their families. Here’s hoping that the return of this classic imprint proves sustaining and profitable for all involved. Whatever the foibles of the past, the music deserves to be heard.

By Derek Taylor

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