A misconception: Sun Ra played free jazz. Critics and listeners usually lump Ra’s dissonant recordings into the free jazz category for one of two reasons. They either take his aggressive, wild sound textures to be essentially the same as that of other members of the '60s avant-garde; or there is just no good category for Ra. “Free jazz,” thus, becomes the best available label. The latter reason is justifiable, while the former reason is not. Listen closely to The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. I
and you will realize that the “free jazz” label is not only unjustified, but limiting as well.
On Heliocentric , more than on his other albums, Ra successfully demonstrates how he wanted to unify rhythm and melody. Symbolically and practically, the tympani and bass marimba represent this union, and the Arkestra consistently uses both. Furthermore, on all pieces the entire ensemble rarely plays at the same time; constantly shifting combinations of instruments is the rule, with every instrument, every timbre and every pitch having the same melodic and rhythmic weight.
Listen, for example, to “Heliocentric” and hear how Ronnie Boykins' bass and the bass marimba merge to become a single, monolithic low-end. Or check out how Ra’s heavy-handed piano propels the blistering pulse of “Other Worlds.”
But a detailed look at the structure of one piece, “Outer Nothingness,” should clearly show how Ra organized his music, even when it sounded “free.” During the intro, a tympani sketches out a jagged melodic/rhythmic outline for the piece, and then roughly halfway through a bass clarinet interlude re-states the same general outline. These two points serve to divide “Outer Nothingness” into two sections, giving it a distorted symmetry. In both sections the Arkestra repeats a thick, moaning brass passage two times in different permutations, and is always preceded by a rumbling bass marimba. After these horn passages, comes a soloing space. In the first section tenor sax and trombone fill this space with ragged solos, while in the second section that soloing space is filled by the drums and marimba. ”Of Heavenly Things” continues these themes, but with the brass passages used less, replaced by a spiky flute phrase and more emphasis on focussed low-end pulse. Like free jazz, the tone colors on these two pieces may sound grating and explosive, but Ra disciplines these sounds when he controls how often the musicians play, and thus creates space between the sounds.
In John Szwed’s Ra biography, Marshall Allen describes how during the Heliocentric sessions Ra would give instructions to start, listen for a few moments, then stop the musicians and pick a new direction, gradually building structure as they went along. The Arkestra did use improvisation as their main compositional tool, but Ra’s hand can be glimpsed in the restrained use of such strange sound combinations. The Arkestra is certainly exploring, but they are being guided. And where they end up makes for one of Sun Ra’s best recordings.
Personnel: John Gilmore: tenor sax, tympani; Pat Patrick: baritone sax, percussion;
Marshall Allen: alto sax, piccolo, bells, spiral cymbal; Bernard Pettaway:
bass trombone; Danny Davis: flute, alto sax; Chris Capers: trumpet; Teddy
Nance: trombone; Robert Cummings: bass clarient, wood blocks; Ronnie
Boykins: bass; Jimhmi Johnson: percussion, tympani; Sun Ra: bass
marimba, electronic celeste, piano, tympani