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Sun Ra: Monorails & Satellites: Works For Solo Piano Vols. 1, 2, 3

John Ephland By

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Sun Ra as a pianist could be in your parlor, entrancing you with all manner of wistfulness, star-gazing, even a dash of the down-and-dirty via some dusty blues or off-kilter, angular, jagged afterthoughts. In this two-disc solo piano set, the nine selections that make up disc two bring it all back home, the music coalescing in sometimes strange and wonderful ways that, perhaps, give a more intimate look into the man's musical heart. Ending with an at-times dreamy then jaunty, rambunctious then mysterious visit to Jerome Kern's haunting "Yesterdays," Ra is, in a sense, looking back, feeling back. We are close.

Monorails & Satellites Volumes 1 and 2 were recorded in 1966 and released two years later. The subsequent but previously unreleased additional material from those sessions (Volume 3) are now included in this two-CD set. A three-LP edition is also available, both of which include liner notes from noted pianist Vijay Iyer, jazz historian Ben Young and producer Irwin Chusid.

Other visits include memorable takes on other standards such as "Don't Blame Me" and "Gone With The Wind." Like Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra's interpretations are highly idiosyncratic, full of personality even as they stay close to the melody. You know who the pianist is, what the song is, and you pretty much know where the music is going. Sort of.

That's always been the charm of listening to artists who kind of play it straight, but not really. And, like Cecil Taylor, Monk and Ra can be heard as pianist/orchestra conductors of their primary instrument. Everything is there. Nothing is missing. Virtuosos ... probably not; at least not in the Van Cliburn sense of the word.

Which is what makes packages like this so damn interesting. Sun Ra is known primarily as a bandleader and composer/orchestrator. And for good reason. His primary instrument, as with Duke Ellington, was the assorted groups of musicians he led over the decades. His work at the keyboard was secondary, whether electric or acoustically employed. And yet, some of the best passages on any of the various Arkestra titles comes when the band lays out and we get to hear the man do his thing, usually with basic rhythm accompaniment. The opening track to 1957's Sound Of Joy (Delmark), "El Is A Sound Of Joy, is a prime example. Ra's brief opening piano solo is the epitome of swing, mystery and joy. It's simple, evocative, ruminative, full of blues feeling. And, it's part of a give and take with another soloist (probably tenorist John Gilmore), not just a one-up, one-out. Humble and deep.

The thing about this piano music from Sun Ra that sticks to you like the salt off a favorite crunchy. It's non-virtuosic virtuosity. Like Ellington, Ra's piano brings you in. An amazing technique isn't the thing; it's the weirdness of something that feels very common, everyday.

Disc One is intimate in a different way. "Cognition" takes a choppier, attacking and unsettled vibe and follows it by way of a more familiar one with the serene, gentle "Skylight.," The earth and sky shift back and forth, in and out, up and down, the material not necessarily having anything to do with melody or conventional song structure. Think more exploratory, expansive, further dimensions of the piano, the piano as platform, a launching pad. And without all the bells and whistles. Not so much trippy as trip-like. Modest with outsized energies. Chords and lines within a certain tonality.

Some of the music might sound like thinking out loud, scattershot with nothing but a turnaround to show for it. The outward-bound, reverb-laden "Astro Vision" plays like a kind of cosmic/Outer Limits intrusion alongside Ra's more saloon-like ivory tickling. And one can only speculate as to what was going through Ra's mind on his manic-sounding juggernaut excursions through the nine-minute "The Ninth Eye" and "Solar Boats." But then, a seemingly wayward tune like "The Alter Destiny" suddenly becomes another parlor song of sorts, the followup standard "Easy Street" only enhancing what came before with it's gentle, relaxed stride and pretty melody, reminding us once again of Ra's deep roots in the jazz tradition.

Sun Ra the pianist was Sun Ra the Arkestra in miniature. Modest in magnitude.

Track Listing: Space Towers; Cognition; Skylight; The Alter Destiny; Easy Street; Blue Differentials; Monorails and Satellites; The Galaxy Way; Astro Vision; The Ninth Eye; Solar Boats; Perspective Prisms of Is; Colundronius; Soundscapes; The Eternal Tomorrow; Today Is Not Yesterday; World Island Festival; The Changing Wind; Don't Blame Me; Gone With The Wind; How Am I To Know; Yesterdays.

Personnel: Sun Ra: piano.

Title: Monorails & Satellites: Works For Solo Piano Vols. 1, 2, 3 | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Cosmic Myth Records

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