Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Sun Ra and His Arkestra, Saturn.

One would have needed either fanatical dedication or just blind luck to have actually heard this track in the year of its release--Jazz in Silhouette, the Sun Ra LP that contains "Saturn," was pressed on cheap vinyl, issued in handmade covers, and sold only in a few Midwestern record stores and by the generally-broke members of the Arkestra for cash after gigs. The LP was at last officially released by Impulse in 1975, but even then distribution was spotty and sales were miniscule.

It's a shame, as it's one of Sun Ra's most accessible records. "Saturn" in particular is an amazing track, looking ahead to free jazz while keeping one foot in bebop, even R&B. It opens with Ra's six-beat exorcism on piano, then a wild 14-bar introduction that shifts and lunges all over the place (more than two octaves, according to Ekkehard Jost). Then, as if a projectionist has changed reels, a danceable, even slightly corny main theme emerges, with John Gilmore on tenor sax and Pat Patrick on baritone sax delivering a sweet pair of solos. Consider the whole piece swing music for the first moon colony.

Sun Ra was born Herman "Sonny" Blount in Birmingham, Ala., in 1914. The odd story of Blount's life can't be reduced a few sentences of biography. Even Blount's Birmingham childhood home was bizarre, as Robert Campbell relates: In a Southern city that was heavily segregated by race, the Blounts did not live in either a black neighborhood or a white neighborhood. Theirs was the only house on an entire city block. They were located across the street from the Post Office and close to the main railroad station. As a child, Sonny could look out the window and see the big sign over the railroad tracks that greeted visitors to The Magic City; many years later that would become the title of one of his greatest (and most avant-garde) compositions. To the north, there were just open fields.

"Saturn" was recorded at "El Saturn Studio" (i.e., someone's basement or rehearsal room) in Chicago, with Pat Patrick (bari sax), Marshall Allen (alto sax), John Gilmore (tenor sax), Charles Davis (bari sax), James Spaulding (alto sax. flute), Julian Priester (tb), Hobart Dotson (t), Ronnie Boykens (b) and William Cochran (d).

Next week: we wrap up '58. In style, as always. Plus, I get a year older.

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