Monday, October 31, 2016

An Afrofuturist Guide to the Cosmos

By Paul Youngquist

He came from Saturn. He traveled the space ways. He created better music for a better world. Sun Ra’s reputation as an inspired musician is finally on the rise. But Sun Ra was much more than that: a poet, a prophet, and an activist whose medium was sound. “I
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would hate to pass through a planet,” he once said, “and not leave it a better place.” He did just that, if the stunning body of recording he left behind is any measure: hundreds of LPs, miles of tape, and countless fan recordings of concerts, radio broadcasts, and interviews.

He created a cosmos of sound. A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism explores its origins and aims: the places that inspire Sun Ra’s music and the spaces it opens for new ways of living, especially for African Americans. As a black man from Birmingham, Alabama, who moved to mid-century Chicago (to speak in earthly terms), Sun Ra experienced first-hand the indignities of racism and segregation. He created a better future by composing music and writing poetry. His glorious achievement makes him the granddaddy of Afrofuturism, the contemporary cultural movement dedicated to imagining new black worlds.

The only way into the future for Sun Ra is through space age sound. This playlist follows the long arc of his career with the “Arkestra,” the name he gave his shape-shifting band. From inner city to outer space: Sun Ra’s exploratory music moves from the familiar to the otherworldly and back again. It was always a collaborative voyage involving diverse musicians, audiences, and supporters, financial and spiritual. You’re part of it now. Listen with an open heart. Imagine a better tomorrow.

“Super Blonde”: The Sun Ra Arkestra’s very first release, a 45 rpm single appearing in 1956. “Super Blonde” reappears a year later on El Saturn’s first LP, Super-Sonic Jazz. The tune announces the arrival on planet Earth of a formidable ensemble, skilled in the herky-jerky rhythms of bebop. The harmonized head, coming after Sun Ra’s mid-tempo piano intro, is pure Charlie Parker. Boppers beware!

“Spaceship Lullaby”: Rehearsal tapes contain wonders, and Sun Ra always had tapes running. In the mid-fifties he coached several doo-wop ensembles. The singers here called their group The Nu Sounds, and Sun Ra arranged their harmonies. In this case he wrote their lyrics too, including phrases appearing again in later Arkestra recordings: “zoom, zoom, up in the air,” and “interplanetary melodies.” The Nu Sounds’s space trip takes a dangerous turn when the singers must fly through the sun to arrive at Saturn.

“Africa”: Also from small-group rehearsal tapes. This track contains creative tampering worthy of Lee Scratch Perry, making it perhaps an early dub masterpiece. Another small group, this one called The Cosmic Rays, sings more Sun Ra lyrics (“a paradise enchanted is Africa”) over the Arkestra’s heavy rhythms and floating flutes. The piece begins and ends with music spliced in from other rehearsals, making for an adventuresome pastiche that illustrates Sun Ra’s early devotion to Africa as an imagined landscape.

“Medicine for a Nightmare”: Take the title seriously—Sun Ra’s music is a prescription. “Medicine for a Nightmare” appears on Super-Sonic Jazz from 1957. It shows Sun Ra in raucous form on his piano solos—first on the Wurlitzer electric, then on a conventional keyboard. Always quick to explore new musical technologies and their innovative sounds, Sun Ra was the among the first (with Ray Charles) to record using an electric piano. Art Hoyle’s muted trumpet adds a therapeutic blast of brightness.

“Demon’s Lullaby”: Shows Sun Ra moving beyond the blues. The Arkestra solos over the conventional twelve bar form, but the head is tense: counterpoint trumpet and sax grooves never land on the one beat, making the tune a forerunner of future experimentation. The Arkestra recorded “Demon’s Lullaby” in 1956, but it didn’t see LP release until 1967 on Angels and Demons at Play. It also appears with several other Arkestra tunes in Ed Bland’s wonderful film, set in Chicago, The Cry of Jazz (1959).

“Sun Song”: A harbinger of experiments to come. This tune appears on Jazz by Sun Ra, Vol. 1, recorded in Chicago for the Transition label and released in 1956. In a pamphlet accompanying the LP, Sun Ra describes his music in uplifting terms: “All of my compositions are meant to depict happiness combined with beauty in a free manner.” This one does so with the dreamy drift of exotica, chimes ringing, cymbals shimmering, drums beating, and Sun Ra spinning silky sounds at the Hammond B-3 organ.

“Saturn”: The classic Arkestra scorcher from the classic LP, Jazz in Silhouette (1959). John Gilmore, Sun Ra’s steadfast tenor saxophonist, demonstrates his command of instrument and idiom in his exciting solo. He once said it took six months of playing “Saturn” before he understood its harmonies. The intro and outro are exhilaratingly weird, with their stuttering phrases and staggering melody. But the sixteen bar blues form brings hurried comfort as Pat Patrick growls hard on the baritone sax.

“Interplanetary Music”: Sun Ra would leave Chicago in 1961, but not before his music took a hard turn toward outer space. This version of “Interplanetary Music” comes from a rehearsal tape made in 1960 and appears in 1967 on the LP We Travel the Spaceways. It has all the charm of something built in the garage. John Gilmore clunks “cosmic bells” on the beat, Sun Ra accompanies on the “cosmic tone organ,” Phil Cohran screeches his violin-uke as the band chants “Inter-plaaaanet-ary music, music, music.”

“Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus”: Sun Ra leaves planet Earth. The Arkestra blasts away from conventional form, chanting the song’s title followed by the words “zoom, up in the air, zoom, zoom!” Then comes a series of space explorations punctuated by Sun Ra’s commanding piano: Gilmore blows free of chordal gravity, Ronnie Boykins bows his bass in stratospheric falsetto, and Sun Ra thunders as the ensemble returns, falling into another fast chant: “the second stop is Jupiter.” Recorded in 1960, this one appears first in 1966 on an LP with the same name, retitled a year later Interstellar Low Ways.

“We Travel the Spaceways”: The Arkestra’s anthem over the course of its long history. This version comes from the 1966 LP of the same title. Almost dirge-like, it slows the standard song form close to the point of stasis. Space opens. Time dilates. First comes a unison all-man chant, “We travel the spaceways from planet to planet.” Then a single slow chorus, the darkly harmonized 32 bars that constitutes the song proper. Improvisation, apparently, would be pointless. The voices return humming in unison, punctuated by a hammered bell that lapses (no kidding) into the whir and bleep of space age wind-up toys.

“Friendly Galaxy”: After leaving Chicago, Sun Ra and the Arkestra landed in New York. Their years there (1961-1968) became a time of incredible experimentation. Less and less constrained by traditional forms, Sun Ra infuses his music with space, allowing the sound to develop freely with the impulses of his musicians. “Friendly Galaxy,” from the extraordinary LP Secrets of the Sun (1965), moves in breathy surges over a steady bass and drum pulse. Notable here is the plucky electric guitar of Calvin Newborn, mimicking the timbre of Sun Ra’s piano. Marshall Allen’s flute wavers placidly over everything.

“Heliocentric”: Not a tune that’s easy to hum, but evocative like few others. In 1965 the Arkestra recorded The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume 1 for ESP-Disk’. Space itself seems to be sitting in. Sun Ra relinquishes the ultimate constraint, tempo, and musical form falls into content. The tune opens with a wandering pulse that fades into the chthonic play of a bass marimba (by Sun Ra!). Bass trombone and tympani conjure—not music exactly but sound, dark and reverberating, harassed by Allen’s piccolo until it explodes, dies, explodes, and dies again: a sonic requiem for jazz.

“Blue Differentials”: It’s easy to forget that Sun Ra was, put simply, a piano player. Here he’s playing solo on the LP Monorails and Satellites, recorded in 1966 and released two years later. “Blue Differentials” does what it names, wringing from the simple twelve bar blues form differences within differences until, in the third chorus, the bass begins to walk, or rather stagger through chord tones connected to the blues more by rumor than convention. The tune almost collapses, but then rights itself with another difference, a rhythmic shift that provokes a gesture toward blues harmony in the upper register. Fade to black: this is the cubist blues.

“Outer Space Ways Incorporated”: “If you find earth boring, just the same old same thing”—then it’s time for a career change. Sun Ra’s spoof on the corporate employment campaign becomes a staple in the Arkestra’s songbook, recorded for the first time live and released in 1966 on the LP Nothing Is . . . . This particular track comes from a 2010 rerelease containing all the outtakes from the original, which is why Sun Ra’s rollicking piano solo ends when the tape runs out. But the Arkestra’s opening vamp makes an irresistible pitch: “come and sign up with Outer Space Ways Incorporated.”

“The Satellites are Spinning”: A Sun Ra lyric set to music. It appears frequently in performance. On this track from The Solar Myth Approach Vol. 1 & 2 (recorded 1968 and released in the early 1970s), Sun Ra leans the promise of his words (“a better day is breaking”) against the sadness of his minor melody, made all the more soulful by his keyboard, a Hohner Clavinet. Its soft plunk and the tune’s slow tempo combine to create a mood of somber optimism. June Tyson’s crystal voice joins the Arkestral chorus for the first time on record.

“The Wind Speaks”: In 1970 an encounter occurred that would revolutionize music: Sun Ra acquired a prototype of the now legendary analogue synthesizer, the Minimoog. It opened for exploration whole new galaxies of sound. The tempered scale disappears into swirling nebulae of noise, which Sun Ra navigates to new dimensions. Prophetic insights reward careful listening to “The Wind Speaks,” which appeared on the LP My Brother the Wind, Volume II from 1971. Amidst telemetric bleep and static hiss appear dim shapes of sound to come: Detroit techno, LA electronica, or Chicago deep house.

“Astro Black”: A major achievement for the Arkestra, recorded in 1972 (for an album on Impulse! by the same name): long, open, exploratory, sidereal. In golden tones June Tyson recites Sun Ra’s poem fusing mythic Africa with the blackness of space: “Astro black mythology, astro timeless immortality.” Sun Ra’s Minimoog provides the thrust to infinity. Its spooky wails and crashes over clattering drums and an almost funky bass groove lead up to the edge of known worlds, then beyond: into blackness, an abyss of electronic radiance and bowed shadows. Trumpets squeal, the Minimoog screams, and Tyson returns, miraculously, to repeat the poem’s opening lines. This one’s worth the long listen.

“When There Is No Sun”: By now it should be obvious: “The sky is a sea of darkness—when there is no sun—to light the way.” John Gilmore’s mahogany voice, awash in reverb, sings the unthinkable: a world bereft of the sun, Sun Ra, and space music. Mercifully, it’s an impossible elegy. This track captures Sun Ra in an unusually small setting, a quartet recorded in Italy in 1978. Sun Ra plays the elusive Crumar Mainman electronic keyboard with programmable bass, which clunks along with tense irregularity. Gilmore’s lyric saxophone and Michael Ray’s plaintive trumpet hang in the air above Sun Ra’s bantering piano and Luqman Ali’s skittering drums, but Gilmore gets the last word: “darkness.”

“UFO”: It turns out the dude can groove. Alert to every musical trend, Sun Ra turned his chops in the late seventies to funk and disco, Arkestra style. The band’s move to Philadelphia may have been partly responsible, but don’t underestimate the power of P-Funk to enchant the master from Saturn. “UFO,” from On Jupiter (recorded in 1979), sports a groove Bootsy could envy, powering eight minutes of close encounter with some funky extra-terrestrials. In rehearsal the Arkestra expressed doubt about such material: “This is some hokey shit, Sonny.” Sun Ra responded wisely: “This hokey shit is somebody’s hopes and dreams. Don’t be so hip!” Words to live by.

“Nuclear War”: Sun Ra addresses an urgent subject. As the Arkestra toured the world from Egypt to Japan to Russia, its message broadened too, embracing the globe. What more terminal way of unifying humanity than thermonuclear weapons? “Nuclear War” offers a surprisingly relaxed meditation on mutually assured destruction. Recorded in 1982 and released a year later on the LP A Fireside Chat With Lucifer, it launches a bemused protest that lands somewhere between call-and-response and rap. Sun Ra states his theme and the Arkestra replies in kind: “If they push that button, your ass gotta go.” Which raises the inevitable question, “What you going to do without your ass?”

“Yeah Man!” Sun Ra got his start playing swing. He never really stopped. “Yeah Man!” was regular jaw-dropper for the Arkestra that paid tribute to Sun Ra’s musical hero, the master swingman Fletcher Henderson. This live version comes from a 1980 concert at the Gasthoff Mohren in Willisau, Switzerland. It smokes. Sun Ra opens with a flirtatious piano cadenza, then it’s off to the swing races as he pounds on the offbeat, brass bragging in harmony as trumpets and saxes scorch solo. The whole ensemble crashes to a tumultuous finish and the crowd erupts: three minutes and twenty-four seconds of pure happiness.

“I’ll Wait for You”: A final blessing: Sun Ra at the celeste with percussion. He left the planet in 1993, but he’s as good as his word. “In some far off place, many light years in space,” he’ll wait for us. He’s waiting now.

Youngquist teaches English at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is the author or editor of six books, including Cyberfiction: After the Future, Monstrosities: Bodies and British Romanticism, and Race, Romanticism, and the Atlantic. He now devotes much of his energy to studying the histories, written and oral, of resistance and creativity in the Caribbean.

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