Space for Sun Ra?

Herman Poole Blount didn’t have it easy. For African-Americans from Birmingham Alabama, that was almost inevitable, but he was ‘orphaned’ (or abandoned) by First Grade, living from that time with his Great Aunt, was imprisoned as a CO during World War II, being ostracised by his family as a consequence, and considered himself friendless. Believing with good reason the world to be a brutal violent place full of grasping spiteful men, he – the gentlest of souls – imagined at first – and then possibly convinced himself – he was from another planet, Saturn. He claimed to have met God personally – in New York, on 125th Street to be precise. For him, myths were facts, facts myths, and only one thing mattered: music. He sought refuge in it, learning to play piano by ear at eleven, and never looked back. His career blossomed and album and song titles suggested a supra-cosmological intelligence at work, although occasionally the music was at variance with that. But even the most grounded or earthbound of his compositions contain elements of his uniquely unorthodox method. As John Szwed notes: “Flatted fifths and augmented ninths had been used to enhance an ending or get to an interlude where people would look up and say ‘What’s happening now?’ But he used them all the way through.” He brought idiosyncratic sounds together as an arranger by encouraging each musician to play in a manner true to himself/herself – only they could make those sounds which revealed their true selves.

For many years I couldn’t even listen to Sun Ra. Occasionally I would notice a slightly warped copy of The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Vol.2 peeking out forlornly from the back of my record collection – seemingly rejected, misunderstood. When I felt like playing some jazz I unwaveringly passed it by. Reflecting upon this now, I can see what went wrong. The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra Vol.2 was not an ideal gateway to his music. Be as well giving a copy of Metal Machine Music to a youngster eager to check out what all the fuss was about with Lou Reed. It was the first and last Sun Ra album I would buy after watching a documentary on television entitled A Joyful Noise around 30 years ago (the film was was made in 1980). 

I had been captivated by the unearthly sounds I heard as well as those strikingly flamboyant Arkestra costumes. I read what I could about him (there was strangely, little to read in those pre-Internet days) and music critics seemed to disagree as to which were his best LPs. Indeed, Sun Ra rarely makes an appearance in Greatest Albums polls, presumably because he recorded well in excess of 100 studio albums, many of which were only ever briefly available. There is such an exotic mystique about the man that many listeners want immediately to get their hands on something definitive. What they will find is that there is such an incredible musical variety in his output, that it is easy to become frustrated or bewildered and abandon the search completely, for even amongst the titles which occasionally resurface in articles and books as recommended recordings, there is no single unmistakable classic to fix on. The truth is that one could listen to a dozen or so Ra albums without gaining any insight into the intimidatingly latitudinous range of his brush strokes. Like many others I had given up on him after one album. 

I always had the intention of revisiting his music at some point, but tracking down Sun Ra albums can be a bit of a challenge: a small number of people have climbed Everest; less have a full house of Sun Ra albums. And getting a handle on which to give ear to is equally perplexing. His music ranges from big band, swing, straight bop, cacophonous free jazz, bizarre moog experimentation, polyrhythmic chanting, Afro-futurism and moody solo piano works, to gently funky space blues by candlelight. There’s even some disco out there. But if five or six albums are chosen very carefully, one may gain some measure of his music. 

So in a way I’m going to cheat a little here by identifying more than a few, and in truth the selection of Discipline 27-II if not quite arbitrary, is certainly not definitive. It is simply one of several superior outings which could have made the cut. If you’re looking for a way in, you may wish to try Space Is The Place and it’s sprawlingly funky title track, a futuristic interplanetary African spiritual. For a very accessible mid to late period introduction, Lanquidity and Sleeping Beauty (the latter is available on Spotify, you may have to search harder for the former) are superb. Check out the mellifluous ‘Springtime Is Here’ (from SB) – two chords, restrained solos; it’s a peach. You could track down something like ‘Omniscience’ from Aurora Borealis (1980) or become enchanted by the lopsided prettiness of ‘Where There Is No Sun’ from the 1978 double set New Steps. His earlier recordings Supersonic Jazz or Jazz In Silhouette are comparatively more conventional and may be more palatable to some; others may prefer to psych into those strange dissonant flutes and queasy strings that characterise his bonkers free jazz from the mid-60s (check out The Magic City or the two Heliocentric volumes). 

Instead, I’ve plumped for Discipline 27-II,  recorded at the same session as 1972’s Space Is The Place, but long since unavailable. It might seem a less obvious choice than its sister, particularly as it does not even feature the best version of its title track – that honour goes to the ultra rare Live In Egypt ‘71 – but it’s an album which contains a sufficient blend of styles to make it a good starting point and it goes without saying that it contains some great music too.

‘Pan Afro’ typifies this approach, Ra’s improvisational piano knocking out all kinds of strange rhythms which are buried under a smooth funky sax riff from John Gilmore. There’s a beautiful trumpet solo too – not sure if it’s by Akh Tal Ebah or Kwame Hadi who both played on the session.’Discipline 8′ is at the other extreme – a barrage of horns attack one chord from different angles, the tension building until the whole thing unravels in a blaze of squawking sax and then disintegrates completely, the skittering listless drums knocked unconscious, like wounded soldiers on a battlefield. ‘Neptune’ is cut from the same cloth as ‘Space Is The Place’ – one of those elongated space chants (led by June Tyson: “Have you heard the latest news about Neptune Neptune Neptune…”) which somehow contrives to sound both utterly lackadaisical and yet super funky at the same time before everyone lets loose in a free orgiastic finale. Finally, the lengthy title track, despite criticism that it is over long – is one of The Arkestra’s most fully realised creations – this time it’s almost like an interstellar conversation (“For you I gave up everything I never had/For all I never had is the life I abandoned…you’re down here, all isolated from the rest of the planets/don’t you feel lonely?”) – the horns are brilliantly measured – the whole thing is joyful, tuneful and soulful in equal measure. Here the Arkestra sound like they have unlocked the secrets of the universe and in some ways they probably had.

In the original Perfect Collection the authors conceded that “every collection ought to have at least one album by a genius like Captain Beefheart.” Actually, I’d say you need six Beefheart albums but that’s besides the point. In order to get to grips with Sun Ra you probably need about the same.There’s space, a place out there in your record collection for the man they called Sun Ra. That most eccentric of introverts left this planet 23 years ago – his extraordinary life had come to its natural end, but The Arkestra, under the tutelage of Marshall Allan are still painting the cosmos with luminous colours in 2016. (JJ)





BALAKLAVA“In peace sons bury their fathers,
In war fathers bury their sons,
Love is silent at the edge of the universe,
Waiting to come in'” (‘Translucent Carriages’)

Balaklava was the second album by Pearls Before Swine, and their second to be released on New York’s legendary ESP, the label responsible for The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra and other uncompromising free jazz recordings of the mid-1960s, as well as oddball counter-cultural rock albums by the likes of The Fugs and The Godz, to whose music I was introduced through a resounding commendation in the original Perfect Collection.

The very first time I heard the music of Pearls Before Swine I knew it was what I had been waiting for my whole life. I had a complete set of albums by The Velvet Underground, Love, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Tim Buckley et al. But something was missing. I never knew what that something was until I encountered Balaklava.

Pearls Before Swine were different. Once fittingly described as “a madman saint leading the asylum band during the rainy season”, Tom Rapp, the band’s leader, songwriter and only permanent member, enjoyed little popular success despite a catalogue of wonderful psych-folk albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Perhaps his quivering voice and heavily pronounced lisp – charmingly honest to some – provided an obstacle to commercial credibility. Or his lyrics, so rich in strange Biblical and Blakean imagery, may have alienated others. Whatever the case, success eluded the band during their career. Recognition came late – too late for pop stardom – but a quietly flourishing audience of fans including a number of musicians, resulted in a tribute album, and concert invitations began to flood in during the late 1990s, by which time Rapp was working as a Civil Rights lawyer in Florida.

Their debut offering, One Nation Underground, was initially recorded as a demo and sent to ESP, who promptly signed the band and rush released the album. On first hearing, it’s Dylanesque protest folk – along with song titles like ‘Drop Out’ and tunes as immediate as ‘Uncle John’ – may seem to have captured the zeitgeist well, but the album sleeve featuring the macabre painting The Garden Of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, hinted at something more portentous. At this stage the band had not yet ‘turned on’ – indeed Rapp identifies the strongest intoxicant favoured by the fledgling Swine to have been Winston cigarettes! Although it was the only Swine album to sell fairly well (around 200,000) the band claim to have received very little royalties and this may have accentuated a darker worldview which while not quite dystopian, stood in stark contrast to the vacuous euphoria of the ‘flower power’ generation.

Balaklava which appeared a year later, received Rolling Stone magazine’s dreaded [], it’s lowest possible rating. But in the 1960s Rolling Stone frequently got it badly wrong. Once again the album featured some apocalyptic artwork, this time Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death, and presented a uniquely harrowing vision of the horrors of war, delineated by Rapp’s (Winston inspired!) hallucinatory and surrealistic poetry.

The album is bookended by two historical recordings: the first, by Trumpeter Landfrey, who sounded the bugle at the beginning of the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ at the Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War; after the second, a barely audible recording of the voice of Florence Nightingale, we hear a tape loop of the whole album rewind to the beginning, surely a commentary on the perennially rapacious nature of the human species, forever embroiled in military conflict, captured at the precise moment when the ugly truth about America’s involvement Vietnam was gradually emerging.

‘Transluscent Carriages’ the most explicitly anti-war song, is shrouded in mystery, Rapp’s ghostly utterances over a plaintive acoustic guitar line, tastefully embellished by atmospheric clavinette. The lyrics to the opening verse are indicative of the album’s sombre mood:

“The translucent carriages
Drawing morning in
Dawn inside their pockets
Like a whisper on the wind.”

‘Images of April’ has a simple swooning bass line but replete with birdsong, flutes, echoed voice, and introducing the intriguing ‘swinehorn’ of Lane Lederer, is the archetype for the album’s peculiar sound.

Even better is ‘I Saw The World’. Warren Smith’s string arrangements provide a panoramic sweep somehow reminiscent of the theme tune to the classic 1960s French children’s TV series The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (or is that just the augmentation of the sound of sea spray?), while the ghostly atmosphere evoked by the distinctive percussive arrangements sound like they come from the depths of The Black Ark. A strange marriage indeed, but listen and you may hear what I hear…
‘Lepers and Roses’, Rapp’s take on the Orpheus myth, is equally gorgeous . The lyrics may be inscrutable:

“In fields where Susan sings/The leopard brings/Yesterday/In upon a string/And all your dead rainbows/Begin to stain/The lace on your raincoat/So leave the blind/Roses behind/You’

..but the music is drunk on its own beauty. A dreamer’s dream…the songs on the album are less conventional narrative or story and more mood pieces. Rapp once clarified his approach to songwriting in an interview with Goldmine:

“My sense of writing a song was that you started with a mood or a feeling and you just chipped away everything that wasn’t that feeling and in the end you’d have something that had crystallized it somehow’

Despite this concentration on mood and atmosphere, the album has its flaws. Although there is a delicately judged cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’, there is at least one mis-step along the way, the plodding sub-Donovan (sub-sub-Dylan) folk of ‘There Was A Man’. But, the old gramophone production of ‘Guardian Angels, is exquisite. Here Rapp once again resurrects the voice of the ancient prophets:

‘All of the pain in the world is outside your bed/In the shapes of phantom men tapping your window with rhythms of dread/And all of the silver rosaries hung on the door/Will not drive them away they are going to stay.’

Rapp and a new set of Pearls went onto release four albums for Reprise, two of which at least (These Things Too and The Use of Ashes) are the equal of Balaklava. His influence is slight and could be detected in the likes of Bill Fay (another much under-appreciated songwriter) but it has been left to long-time devotees such as Damon & Naomi (of Galaxie 500 fame) and Flying Saucer Attack to rekindle a flame which never so much burnt out as was ever adequately ignited in the first place. But, still that flame flickers for the chosen few – those seduced by the sounds and visions of an authentic lost prophet.(JJ)