PHAROAH SANDERS IN THE BEGINNING, 1963-64 • Pharoah Sanders (t-sax); Don Cherry (cnt, pn);1 Joe Scianni (pn);1 David Izenson (db);1,2 J. C. Moses (dr);1 Paul Bley (pn);2 Paul Motian (dr);2 Stan Foster (tpt);3 Jane GetzRead more (pn);3 William Bennett (db);3 Marvin Pattillo (dr);3 Sun Ra & his Solar Arkestra4 • ESP-DISK 4069, mono and stereo (4 CDs: 218:00)
CHERRY 1Cocktail Piece (2 tks). 1Cherry’s Dilemma. 1Rembrance. MONK 1Medley: Light Blue. Coming on the Hudson. Bye-Ya. Ruby, My Dear. C. BLEY 2Generous (2 tks). 2Walking Woman (2 tks). 2Ictus. SANDERS 3Seven By Seven. 3Bethera. RA 4Dawn Over Israel (2 tks). 4The Shadow World (2 tks). 4The Second Stop is Jupiter (2 tks). 4Discipline #9. 4We Travel the Spaceways. 4Gods on Safari. 4The Shadow World. 4Rocket #9. 4The Voice of Pan, Parts 1 & 2. 4Space Mates. 4Conversation With Saturn. 4The Next Stop Mars. 4Pathways to the Outer Known &
& Interviews with Sanders, Bley, Bernard Stollman, Sun Ra
Although the majority of ESP-Disk’s CD releases appear to be straght reproductions of the original LPs, this compiles formerly unissued sessions by the Don Cherry Quintet, recorded at Stereo Sound Studios in New York City in January 1963 and the Paul Bley Quartet, recorded at the same venue in May 1964; the Pharoah Sanders Quintet’s debut LP, Pharoah’s First (formerly ESP-Disk 2005), starring pianist Jane Getz, recorded in September 1964; and Sun Ra Featuring Pharoah Sanders & Black Harold, recorded in December 1964. The liner notes indicate that the original Sun Ra LP included the stereo tracks but not the mono ones, issued here for the first time.
Althuogh the Cherry set includes Cocktail Piece (first variation), which also appears on the CD Don Cherry Live at Café Montmartre 1966 (see my review elsewhere in this issue), the intensity level is much lower here. Of course, this probably had a lot to do with a studio environment as compared to a live set, but I also think that perhaps Cherry was still “working out” these pieces and, at the same time, seeing how this newcomer would fit in. Sanders, whose original first name was Farrell, had begun playing with Junior Parker, then later in Oakland with Sony Simmons. In this particular session, he fits in very nicely although the leader takes more solo space than he does. The results are quite interesting, however, and I truly enjoyed them all. Although it doesn’t feature Sanders, I was also fascinated by the Thelonious Monk medley played by pianist Joe Scianni, simply because he sounds so much like Monk himself. Monk’s odd playing style, in which he stressed notes on the offbeats and between-beats, often eludes other keyboardists who try to play his music…they get the notes right, but not the rhythm. Scianni gets both right, which is highly unusual.
The Paul Bley session, too, is much more relaxed—and to my ears, more coherent—than the leader’s own session reissued under the title Barrage (see my review of that Bley CD elsewhere). Sanders, who by his own admission wasn’t completely sold on free jazz in the beginning because it sounded “crazy” to him, clearly shows here that his original influences, Sonny Rollins and Earl Bostic, were being fused in his mind with his own very personal style. Again, as in the case of the Cherry session, the energy level is more relaxed. In this case, however, the resultant sense of form and structure is much more satisfying—to my ears, at least—than Bley’s semi-chaotic-sounding issued disc. David Izenson’s bass playing on this session is simply astounding, being exceptionally light in sound and texture (much like the bass playing of an earlier pioneer, John Kirby) while still exploring quarter-tone harmonics and other forms. Likewise, Bley’s playing, being less frantic and more controlled here than on his self-titled CD, also manages to impress the listener’s mind much more clearly with his dissonant keyboard “crushes,” which were the only way he too could play in quarter-tones without retuning the entire piano. Sometimes the telescoping long view of history gives a greater validity to some music than to others, and in this case this Bley session is the more satisfying.
As for Sanders’s own playing, it is actually more controlled, with a better tone and less “squawk,” than the playing of either alto player Marshall Allen on the other Bley set or tenor saxist Gato Barbieri on the “live” Don Cherry set. This in itself is not a condemnation of the style, merely to point out that one must have a musical reason for squawking occasionally. I was also quite impressed with Sanders’s tone, which is full and rich, always maintaining a good quality in even the wildest passages. By the time of his self-titled recording session, the only one which ESP-Disk owner Bernard Stollman ever did with Sanders and his group directly, the saxist’s tone had become very close in timbre to that of John Coltrane, who had become a major influence on him. Yet he was playing very much in his own style, which at that time (1964) was further out than Coltrane’s, including not only squawks but “chording” with the tongue and reed (there’s an entire half-chorus played with chording). This is, quite simply, astounding playing, innovative and creative, building the music on a combined aesthetic of sound, texture, and what musicians sometimes call “overblown harmonics.” Ironically, despite including three photos of her in the booklet, there are no notes about pianist Jane Getz (b. 1948), who was, astonishingly, only 16 years old at the time of this recording. Her playing is fresh and clean, reminiscent of Lennie Tristano or early Bill Evans. Disillusioned with trying to find work in jazz, Getz left the scene in the 1970s to record a lot of country music and rock, only returning to jazz in the 1990s. After working with Dale Fielder’s quartet, she recorded the first jazz album under her own name in 1996.
After this somewhat hectic avant-garde workout, Bethera is actually more lyrical and less squawking. Here, in fact, the connection between Sanders and Sonny Rollins is quite clear, as the younger saxist unashamedly shows traces of one of his earliest influences. Here, too, Sanders only occasionally moves into an “outside” avant-garde style, preferring to remain quite lyrical and accessible to the average listener. The liner notes indicate a brief quote of Monk’s Well, You Needn’t, but this is done in such a way as to sound as if it is actually part of the tune he is playing and not necessarily a quote from elsewhere. Getz’s sensitive and intelligent comping behind the saxist is simply wonderful, her extended solo here even more so.
Next we reach the two albums’ worth of material with Sun Ra. Here was a truly strange character, one who created his own persona and wove a mythology around it. To save space I won’t give you the whole story, but I urge you to read his profile on Wikipedia. You won’t believe your eyes. In brief, he was born Herman Poole Blount in 1914 but claimed to be of an “Angel Race” and not from Earth, but from Saturn. He said he was visited by aliens with antennas on their heads in 1936 or ’37, when he would have been 22 to 23 years old, but colleages don’t recall him using the Sun Ra name before 1952. Nevertheless, he invented his own persona using “cosmic philosophies and lyrical poetry that made him a pioneer of afrofuturism,” preaching a doctrine of awareness and peace. Despite having worked for Wynonie Harris, Lil Green, and even Fletcher Henderson during the mid-to-late 1940s under his original name and as “Sonny Lee,” Sun Ra denied any connection with his birth name, saying “That’s an imaginary person, never existed…Any name that I use other than Ra is a pseudonym.”
Sun Ra and his “Arkestra,” as he called it, thus set about playing what he termed “cosmic music” with arcane titles like Conversation with Saturn, We Travel the Spaceways, The Second Stop is Jupiter, and Pathway to the Outer Known, all of which are included in this set. I can’t tell you the number of people who took Sun Ra seriously, because I generally ignored his music and stayed clear of his cult, but he was around for roughly 40 years so someone had to buy into his space malarkey. In my view, and it’s only mine, Sun Ra was a total put-on, the same as John Cage in classical music, and like Cage he did it with a straight face and complete (at least, to the media) sincerity. (Note to all self-convinced space aliens: the Sun Ra Arkestra still performs as a “ghost band” led by Marshall Allen, à la the Glenn Miller and Count Basie bands, at the interplanetary space station nearest you. Check the figuration of the Big Dipper for times and places.) Whatever one thinks of the packaging and presentation, once past the sound effects and “space” references there is some real music to be heard here. Sun Ra never entirely abandoned his love for the swing arrangements of Fletcher Henderson (one of the few Sun Ra LPs I ever bought, back in the 1970s, had a swing tune on it in the Henderson style), and he likewise adapted much of the sounds he heard from cool jazz, Monk, and other modern sources. Thus Dawn Over Israel begins with an interesting chordal solo by Ra (whose technique was always somewat limited, though swinging) while flutes play over him; then the succession of sounds occur, possibly (because of the title’s reference to Israel) based on Middle Eastern modes and ideas but far more radically constructed and very “outside” in the sense of tonality and structure. Ra’s second piano solo is essentially cacophony. Due to his technical limitations, his keyboard excursions were essentially just flitting his hands around the piano. (I apologize if anyone out there thinks differently, but that’s my perception.) In the next track, The Shadow World, Ra’s cacophonic piano is heard from the start, and when the horns enter they sound like screaming, squealing zoo animals in pain. Perhaps this has some relationship to the African-American experience of the time, but this particular mode of expression isn’t nearly as creative to me as the contemporaneous music of Eric Dolphy or Charles Mingus.
But as I say, despite the sincerity of the musicians involved, much of this is a giant put-on; while convesely, despite the put-on, there is some real music to be heard. Unlike the compositions of Cage, Ra never completely severed all ties with the past, thus even in the midst of chaos in The Shadow World there are fine solos by trumpeter Al Evans, Sanders on tenor sax, Pat Patrick on baritone sax, and duo drummers Clifford Jarvis and Jimmhi Johnson. The patchwork-quilt approach to jazz composition and performance didn’t just leave audiences confused, but sometimes afflicted the musicians in the band as well. Ra demanded that his players be available for rehearsals any time he felt like it, which might be at 9: 00 in the morning, 4:30 in the afternoon or half past midnight. (He also insisted on a semi-monastic existence, banning not only the use of drugs—completely understandable and even laudatory—but also alcohol and interaction with women.) The Second Stop is Jupiter is a continuation of the drum battle in The Shadow World, so there’s not much difference of sound or feeling.
I did, however, like Discipline #9, brief though it was (two and a half minutes), as it seemed to me a funhouse mirror recomposition of a ballad or blues. Marshall Allen’s alto sax is heard on this as, briefly, is Sanders. This leads without a break into We Travel the Spaceways, in which some band members are chanting softly in the background, something about “Planet Earth.” (Two things really puzzled me about Sun Ra:  since he was considered a flake and an outsider, how did he raise the money to start and maintain his Arkestra? And  once he learned the scientific fact that no life of any sort can exist, let alone come from, Saturn, why didn’t he change his place of origin to a planet no one could reach or see?) Despite the oddness of We Travel, there’s an unusual feeling of calm and relaxation, particularly after the frantic, angst-filled pieces that preceded it. The 30 or 40 people in attendance give his band a nice hand.
The last CD is a live concert recorded in mono on New Year’s Eve, 1964, the day after the previous disc. First up is Gods on Safari, and they sure are; then a shorter (six minute) version of The Shadow World, on which Sanders’s tenor sax is prominent, this time followed by four minutes of Rocket #9. The playing on these tracks is, predictably, very “outside” jazz, and there appears to be even more exposure in this concert for “Black Harold” (Harold Murray) on both flute and log drums, particularly in the two-part Voice of Pan. In some of the later tracks, such as Converation With Saturn, the band sounds like it is having a communal nervous breakdown. Gone is the strong, forceful trumpeting of earlier; in its place is a soft whimpering.
The intervew segments included in this set as bonus tracks are interesting, particlarly those of Sanders himself and Don Cherry’s descriptions of Ornette Coleman’s influence. The Paul Bley interview is also fascinating as it describes how the piano almost disappeared from free jazz becase it could not slither chromatically through quarter-tones like other instruments, and the brief interview with ESP-Disk founder Bernard Stollman describes the young Sanders as cool and essentially unfriendly—possibly the result of the hardships he had encountered up to that point in his young life.
Despite my reservations about the Sun Ra tracks—mostly on musical grounds, and just my personal taste—this is a fascinating set, recommended for fans of Sanders, Cherry, Bley, Ra, or free jazz in particular.