History has it that on 20th April 1965, Sun Ra and His Solar Arkestra assembled in New York at RLA Studios on the Upper West Side with engineer Richard L. Alderson to record ‘The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra’ – one of Sun-Ra’s most acclaimed projects. The recordings were later presented in two volumes and released in 1965 and 1966 respectively on ESP Disk. The album added another layer to the evolution of jazz with its use of unusual instrumentation, combined with the juxtaposition of how improvisation and composition can be used aesthetically in jazz, underpinned by the forward thinking Arkestra which included Marshall Allen and Danny Ray Thompson, who helped Sun Ra to expound on the burgeoning free jazz movement of the time. Fast forward 50 years to the day of those RLA sessions, and on 20th April 2015, ScienSonic Laboratories gathered a high calibre group of musicians that aimed to utilise the spirit of those original recordings to create an ambitious project that would capture the essence of ‘The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra’, and thankfully not to remake it.
The project was the brainchild of label owner and multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson, who assembled an all-star cast of players, including the aforementioned Marshall Allen, who as of May 2017 is 93 years young, longtime Arkestra member Danny Ray Thompson (sax, bassoon), trombonist Frank Lacy, trumpeter Philip Harper, bassist Pat O’Leary, saxophonist Yosvany Terry, bass trombonist Tim Newman, drummer Matt Wilson, bass clarinetist JD Parran, with Scott Robinson being the conduit for the record. The original engineer of the 1965 ‘Heliocentric’ sessions, Richard Alderson, was also recruiting to handle the technical aspects of this historic recording, which took place at ScienSonic Laboratories (Robinson’s converted garage), which is also home to an extensive collection of obscure musical instruments and unconventional sound creation devices, including the original bass marimba used by Sun Ra himself on ‘Heliocentric Worlds’.
The album itself comprises of 11 compositions with a total running time edging just over 60 minutes, with individual running times varying from 1 minute to 9 minutes and Allen, Thompson and Robinson being major contributors to the feel of the project. This included Marshall Allen playing alto saxophone and EVI (electronic valve instrument, but technically speaking a synthesiser), but also for the first time on a recording, piano and bass marimba – the one previously owned by Sun Ra. The 11 parts are all titled ‘Heliotone…’ and then numbered ‘1a’ to ‘7’, but they are definitely separate pieces that contain individual themes rather than segueing into each other. And analysing ‘tracks’ as one does with more conventional releases does not suit projects of this nature. This is a more visceral experience as opposed to the sonic cherry picking that we all now do when listening to music – myself included, therefore, exploring singular elements is futile here. A longer listening investment is required and with repeated plays one does begin to familiarise and better understand the layers of sonic embellishments provided.
The free jazz idiom is easy to dismiss – even within jazz circles. But nonetheless, I would argue that this is quite an accessible album. It could be described as having a soundtrack quality due to how dynamic and textured it is and ‘Heliosonic Toneways’ could easily be a soundtrack to a contemporary indie movie. There’s some frantic free playing next to atmospherics and soundscapes, some interesting ensemble conversations next to individual personal statements. The album is sonically very rich, the playing is exceptional and the recording and mixing quality is of high standard, plus, there was apparently enough material recorded during the session for another future volume.
Since the passing of Sun Ra in 1993 and John Gilmore (d. 1995), Marshall Allen, a World War II vet who joined Sun Ra in 1958, has led the Arkestra during their constant recording and touring schedules. This extraordinary individual has had a remarkable career stretching over 60 years, and it’s here we have the opportunity again to celebrate his work alongside Danny Ray Thompson and the other musicians involved. The spirit of Sun Ra and the Arkestra is definitely here.