There are certain works of art with which I wish I could have a conversation, so that I might express my gratitude for them. I would say, “Thank you for existing, and doing what you do. You’ve enriched my life.” I wouldn’t downplay the venerated “usual suspects”—A Love Supreme, Sgt. Pepper, Citizen Kane—but I’d give top priority to achievements of human creativity that seem to come to us as if on some independent, solitary mission for the exclusive purpose of intense connection.
People will tell you that the holidays are hard, and there are certainly enough blues and jazz songs testifying to that emotional truth. They’re usually talking about Christmas, though, when we remember what we’ve lost, those we miss, the opportunities we may have squandered, as the days grow shorter. I feel like we almost need carols and wreaths and the sanguinity—the hope—that the color red represents to make it through some of those Yules. Or maybe I’m projecting my experiences onto you, fellow jazz lover.
Thanksgiving, though, is “tricky” hard, because it has this built-in directive that you’re supposed to give thanks for certain parts of your life, with an emphasis on home and personal relationships. But what if none of that is going the way you wish or need it to? You might feel selfish should you find it challenging to give those aforesaid thanks. And you know that no one wants to hear you say, “I’m not thankful for anything at the moment,” or mumble a few words about health, which is certainly important enough, but you likely don’t want it to be your go-to answer.
I have found, however, that there is a remedy to this, and my remedy works, too, for those who love their lives, their relationships, their living situations. It works for everyone, and it’s something I do each year, which I thought I’d share with you this Thanksgiving, as if we’re all sitting around the table, taking turns to express what makes us grateful, and when we come to me, I say, “Time spent with Sun Ra. Especially time spent with Sun Ra’s Jazz in Silhouette. For the record is wise, and it is has stirred me at my core, for which I am truly grateful.”
Jazz in Silhouette and I have a history. You might even say that we go way back. Long believed to have been recorded in 1958, it was actually cut in Chicago’s El Saturn Studio—a fitting name for Ra—on March 6, 1959. The Arkestra, as Ra called it, was at this point a post-swing, pre-Futurism band. That is, the sci-fi components that will be in evidence in the ensemble’s 1960s work are less to the fore. Which seems ironic, given the record’s cover with some female space creature lying supine over the puckered craters of the moon or Mars—I’m not sure which, but it’s very sci-fi in the manner of the covers of pulps at the time like Amazing Stories and Super Science. At the same session, Ra and his crew also waxed Sound Sun Pleasure!!, which wouldn’t see release until 1970, and the title track of Interstellar Low Ways, to be released (we think; the discography can be a touch hazy) in 1966. Here was a bounteous day.
The cover and the titles suggest the intergalactic. Remember, this was the era of big-bug movies, body-snatching invaders, and gill-men stalking remote lagoons. Science fiction permeated American culture, and was tantamount to another gas in the air that Americans pulled into their lungs. And yet, Jazz in Silhouette is not a sci-fi record as you might think of sci-fi, and in this paradox rests parts of the rub that makes it so special, and which hooked me as a burgeoning jazz listener, largely because even as I was getting started, it reframed possibilities. Or remade them, I should say.
I liked the splashy imaginings of sci-fi, figured I’d dig this record, and then proceeded to listen to music that had no root in anything, let alone sci-fi. What I mean by that is, Jazz in Silhouette is an artistic exercise in dislocation. For starters, I don’t know what genre you’d like to call this. I can say that it’s not swing, it’s not bop, it isn’t postbop or hard bop. Nor is it free jazz. It’s entirely self-contained, and what struck me most was how removed it seemed to be from the strictures of time. If you had told me that the record was from 1924, I would have doubted you only because of the fidelity. Likewise, if you said it was from 2019, I’d say, “Well, okay, what of it?”
Science fiction puts an emphasis on imagination. It’s a genre that frees us up. Liberates an artist, a writer, a musician. The idea clearly appealed to Ra, who was doing science fiction in that liberated sense, but without any of the trappings—or broad expectations—of the medium. Dislocation paired with specificity of purpose—which strikes us as a contradiction, but isn’t necessarily one in art—has a rare power, and I was grateful for Ra and his Arkestra in helping me understand this early on with jazz.
Orson Welles was talking to Peter Bogdanovich about Penrod and Seventeen, two comic novels by Booth Tarkington, which number among the funniest things I’ve ever read, and were the same for Welles. He noted, though, that the stories themselves, despite the timeless humor, hadn’t dated as well as the comic writings of Mark Twain, because the latter existed in this emotionally primordial world outside of the calendar. Hence, Twain endures as Tarkington might not.
Jazz in Silhouette is a Twain-esque record, we might say. The sound is massive yet intimate; the 10-piece ensemble is bigger than a small band but sounds like a trio or quartet when it wishes to, with no one laying out and each player contributing.
That’s a neat trick, but I wouldn’t wish to accuse Ra of artifice. He’s a conjurer, yes, and playful (Frank Zappa is a good rock comp), but he doesn’t toss smokescreens at us. The music dialogues. Speaks. Sometimes it chirps, sometimes it commiserates, sometimes—and this I love above all—it even strikes me as listening to us. As we think. As we hear. Who does that? Sun Ra does that, and again, he has my gratitude for doing so.
Listening to this record, one has the feeling that it can fill all of the space there is, and the very stuff of space.
The record comprises eight songs, all solely by Ra save “Enlightenment” (a nice one-word statement of intent), which was co-written by trumpeter Hobart Dotson, and “Hours After,” to which the arranger Everett Turner lent a hand, the reversal of the familiar “after hours” term—and one especially familiar to jazz musicians—riffing on that idea of precise imprecision, of dislocation partnered with focus. Twenty percent of the musicians on the record—so, two players—are baritone saxophonists, Pat Patrick and Charles Davis (both of whom also contribute percussion). Their horns lend a quality of beefiness to the sound, but that brawn isn’t volume-heavy. It’s more akin to wise counsel, when the tones of the voice dip lower, as if this is how we best hear the input that we need.
Ra’s piano is a dexterous table-setter on “Blues at Midnight,” with Ronnie Boykins’ bass being the number’s real driver. It’s quite a rock & roll bass, in the style of Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking About You” or the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There.” You might hear the number a time or two and not notice it, but once you do, it locks you in a grip that—again with the irony—frees you to hear everything else darting, rocketing, dancing across the soundscape. The piece is a minuet, and also a juke dance. And though we can’t date this music, you couldn’t mistake it as being by anyone else.
The titles of the other numbers read like the chapter list for a novel by science-fiction writer Clark Ashton Smith: “Saturn,” “Horoscope,” “Ancient Aiethopia,” that last one sounding as if a portion of Africa has been transposed to Neptune, where a race beyond the bounds of our Earth once thrived and then was no more. Or conceivably they became us, and cut this date at a Chicago studio.
“Blues at Midnight” remains earthy, but in the manner of Elysian fields rather than freshets and newly upturned soil. Shimmering earthy, the land with a crown upon it. A big reason why would be tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, who is one of those players—like Hank Mobley—I feel compelled to stump for. We have names we regularly bandy about as the inner circle of jazz’s unofficial Hall of Fame, but we should have the likes of Gilmore standing right among their number.
The Ra-Gilmore partnership is an overlooked one in jazz. The idea that Ra is somehow “weird”—with the name, the album cover art, the persona—can deflect from the reality that he’s every bit as much about the music as a Duke Ellington was. Gilmore is a sax man who thinks through his horn; he has an abundance of power, and that power alone could make him a classic cutting-contest blower, but it’s his cerebralness that accounts for his power beyond power. Brain muscle. He reminds me of Sonny Rollins in this way. Gilmore also doesn’t need to be a “showpiece” guy, and there’s thanks to give for that as well. What’s a showpiece guy? On a different instrument, Dizzy Gillespie is a showpiece guy, whereas Freddie Hubbard is not. Hubbard can better fit his voice, in its myriad permutations, within the voicings of an ensemble. Art Tatum is a showpiece guy, with the exception of the group recordings he cut for Norman Granz, and even then he’s fairly showpiece-y at times.
Gilmore was a cat who worked equally well in the larger-band setup and in the intimacy of the small group, in part because the Arkestra—especially as we hear it on Jazz in Silhouette—feels intimate. Close to us. Some groups hail us with a shout; others beckon with a whisper that’s unlike an ordinary whisper in that it still fills the surrounding space. Listening to this record, one has the feeling that it can fill all of the space there is, and the very stuff of space. If there’s a sci-fi element beyond the cover, that’s it. But again, that’s brain muscle sci-fi. Heady. Conceptual, with the music also remaining at ground level, or dance-floor level, if you prefer.
A coil of smart, urban funk starts “Saturn,” as if the planet is cutting through a city alley, knowing where the best shortcuts are. Ra’s chording reminds me of Lil Armstrong’s; the number might be too busy without the leader’s steady hand, with Gilmore’s solo suggesting that kind of excited chatter one associates with childhood when the desired destination finally emerges around that last curve of the road.
There isn’t a moment on the record I do not treasure. If you were to say to me, “Okay, you must part with 17 seconds, where shall we shave them away?” I’d respond with, “Must I?” and feel decidedly crestfallen.
I must have another portion of “Velvet,” with its Rachmaninoff-esque piano, or the museum blues of Bill Evans we encounter on “Images,” before the tune sheds its stateliness to lope with glee and élan, and a summoning flute of the fields. I want every last portion of this record passed my way again and again, and when I have heaped my plate, I ask to have my cup refilled as well. A jazz bounty, and for that I must say thank you, Sun Ra; thank you, Arkestra; thank you, Jazz in Silhouette: You throw my gratitude into relief.