From newly independent nations of Africa to locations in the Far East and remote cosmos, jazz from the mid-1950s onwards imagined liberation through distant places and spaces. In this series, Derek Walmsley journeys through the sketches of these new worlds. Journey five pulls into Saturn
On an endless train journey, I’m longing to hear Sun Ra And The Arkestra’s “Saturn”, but my iPhone has gone dead. I imagine the opening bars of the piano, concentrating on its two note tattoo like a ringing alarm bell, and suddenly the whole of the four minute piece starts to unfold in my head: the opening horn theme, which turns itself around until it’s back to front, and keeps on going until it’s the right way around again; the engine of the band kicking into life with William Cochran’s snare hit and hi-hat, and Victor Sproles’s descending bassline; at the bridge, a brass fanfare is chased along by more horns underneath as if negotiating a tight series of chicanes. After a series of saxophone and trumpet solos, it returns to the main theme with Cochran striking his snare from on to off beat, breaking the flow like a vehicle going down through the gears.
“Saturn”, recorded in 1956 (and revisited in 1959 on Jazz In Silhouette), seems to unfold with inexorable certainty from the first note to the last. Its momentum is irresistible, like a craft orbiting a planet at incredible speed, particularly when Cochran gestures towards breakbeats in the introduction and coda. Like many bebop pieces, and the best popular music of the early 20th century, the melodic and harmonic compression is highly advanced, so if you activate the first notes of the melody in your head the whole piece springs open like a .zip file.
But unlike much jazz of the era, it’s full of quirks and knotty imperfections, and these details stand out: two horn lines colliding in the bridge and tumbling over each other, like kittens in a box; the bassline at the end stranded at the high end of the neck with nowhere to go but down. You can see why, at this early stage in Sun Ra’s recording career, listeners and critics were baffled by the awkwardness of his work and his amateurish, sometimes hamfisted musicians.
The typical feel of a big band tune from the bebop era is a finely oiled stage show – a disciplined chorus-line hierarchy with horns at the top and rhythm section below moving in slick synchronisation. Sun Ra’s group on “Saturn” is more like a circus, with instruments stumbling backwards and forwards into each other from every angle. This topsy-turvy world carries through to the titles of the track and the 1966 album on which this earliest version of “Saturn” was released. The track is “Saturn”, but the album is Sun Ra And His Solar Arkestra Visits Planet Earth, which hints that Saturn is to be found on Earth and vice versa. In Ra’s cosmology, the infinite dimensions of space are a reaction to the constraints and prejudice of Earth. But the whole point of this strange trip was that it was no holiday – it responded to the fluid chaos of the here and now. “Saturn” is merely a brief window into a constant swirl of philosophies and alternative dimensions.
Sun Ra’s role, as band leader, group guru, tour manager and accountant of the Arkestra, was multiple. The piano, part of the rhythm section, usually drives the band forward, but you can hear Sun Ra in front and behind the beat, gently pushing and pulling his players around. Judged by standard jazz criteria, it’s amateurish. But amateurism was an important aesthetic and moral value in the Arkestra set-up (as it is in the contemporary UK group who took an early version of The Arkestra’s name, Vibracathedral Orchestra). Being in the group was about making a life, not just making a living. So Sun Ra nurtured his players, he cajoled them, he dispensed spiritual advice; he sometimes took them off the street and gave them a reason to carry on. Whether his piano was forceful, direct, meandering or playful, there was a pastoral dimension behind it.
Ra might have been the leader of the group, but he allowed his players autonomy within the framework of his compositions, by encouraging them to play around the score, to concentrate on the sound of their own instrument rather than the overall arrangement, and to channel their own joy and anger. Those knotty imperfections of “Saturn”, such as the way trumpeter Art Hoyle niggles at one note like an angry bee, are clues that this was not your usual post-bop unit. Each Sun Ra composition can yield radically different results in different recordings. “Saturn” is no different, with its later version notably slicker and more disciplined.
Compositions like “Saturn” are portals or spaces within which players can express themselves and explore new relationships. Sun Ra was no democrat, but his pieces have the same kind of freedom that you find in gospel church services or dance events, where people suddenly join hands or move together, seizing the moment and forgetting themselves. The beauty of “Saturn” is that it is both a four minute pop song that lodges in your mind forever, and a matrix of possibilities which contains multitudes.
Catch up with Derek on his journey: read the first instalment on Lee Morgan's "Search For The New Land" here, the second call on Herbie Hancock's "Oliloqui Valley" here, stop three takes in Yusef Lateef's Jazz 'Round The World, and the fourth on Horace Silver’s “The Baghdad Blues”, “The Tokyo Blues” and “The Cape Verdean Blues”.