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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Gaslini Plays Sun Ra (Soul Note 121490-2)

Sad news from Italy earlier this week: the great Giorgio Gaslini passed away. Here are my booklet notes for one of his albums:

Over the course of his long and fruitful career, Italian pianist/composer Giorgio Gaslini has taken on some daunting musical challenges and emerged with shining success. This is, after all, the man who previously released a solo piano album of Albert Ayler pieces (Ayler's Wings, Soul Note 121270); the man who jazzed up Robert Schumann with trio arrangements (Schumann Reflections, Soul Note 121120). And, although it was less startling, he's the man who recorded an album of solo Thelonious Monk (Gaslini Plays Monk, Soul Note 121020) back in May 1981, while Monk was still alive and such tributes were less common. There's also Gaslini's big band arrangements of Jelly Roll Morton (Jelly's Back in Town, DDQ 128020), not to mention operas based on Othello and the life of Malcolm X. The dapper Italian maestro is, in short, a man of imagination and creativity not only in his own considerable music but also when playing other people's music, even when their strong personalities would overwhelm those of most other musicians.

Certainly Sun Ra, AKA Le Sony'r Ra, AKA Herman Poole "Sonny" Blount (1914-1993), was one such original, one of the most distinctive, innovative composers and performers in jazz -- a genre overflowing with strong personalities. Gaslini's way with Ra's music is sometimes whimsical, but never capricious; he takes it seriously, yet never sounds academic. The paths of these two musicians from different worlds (the Deep South of the United States, the North of Italy -- or, as Ra would have it, from Saturn and Earth) intersected on the physical plane twice, both festivals when Gaslini's group played the first set and Ra played the second set. The first time was on Gaslini's home turf in 1973 at the very first concert in the history of Umbria Jazz in Perugia; the second time was in 1987 on Ra's old stomping grounds, at the Chicago Jazz Festival.

A stronger link than having met twice is their insistence on making music that, though it comes from strong roots, is allowed to flourish without boundaries, to expand beyond mere genre (like Gaslini, Ra would occasionally translate classical pieces into jazz). One of the most startling expressions of that phenomenon on the present set is the way Gaslini interpolates bits of The Well-Tempered Clavier of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) into each of the tracks. One connection between Bach and Ra could be the importance of counterpoint in their musical conceptions, however differently expressed; another is that both built their art on foundations considered obsolete by the time they found fame. While the streamlined style galant bloomed around him (even his own sons preferred it), Bach continued expanding the learned counterpoint of older generations. Famously, when he played for German organ patriarch Johann Adam Reincken (1643-1722), who had studied with a student of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), Bach improvised on the same chorale tune as Reincken's famed showpiece, the Fantasia on "An Wasserfl├╝ssen Babylon," leading the elder to exclaim, ""I thought this art was dead, but I see that in you it lives!" Sun Ra's Arkestra, though pegged as avant-garde, could and did play note-perfect Fletcher Henderson swing arrangements decades after swing was considered an anachronism. A final link is found in Gaslini's statement, "I found a special similarity between the cosmological conception of Sun Ra and the metaphysical vision of J.S. Bach. It was for me a spontaneous connection." More on that in a moment….

This is just Gaslini's third solo piano album. As he did with Ayler's music, Gaslini made transcriptions from Ra's band recordings (he has not chosen any pieces that  Ra made solo piano recordings of), then arranged them for piano, as he puts it, "preserving the purity of the original themes and seeking to capture the harmonic and polyphonic physiognomy that were so often implicit in the composer’s orchestral versions." Gaslini professes to find "a surprising sort of modern 'classicism'" when Ra's arrangements are thus clarified, a "tendency towards objectivity" that is emphasized even more when set alongside the Bach fragments. On about two-thirds of the tracks, the Bach quotes are easily heard; on the rest, they are harder to catch.

When, as Gaslini says, "the earthly metaphysics of Sun Ra are set beside the serene metaphysics of Bach," it is worth pondering what those metaphysics are. Both composers, whether despite or because of their great rationality, also had a strong strain of mysticism. In Bach, this apparently found some expression in his music through number symbolism; the pioneering research in this aspect of his creativity was done by German scholars Arnold Schering, Martin Jansen, and Friedrich Smend. While interpretation of this symbolism ranges from the innocuous to the extreme, there seems to be some core truth to it. (Ruth Tatlow's article in Oxford Composer Companions: J.S. Bach, edited by Malcolm Boyd, concisely summarizes the methods, provides examples, critiques the results, and delineates the controversies surrounding the use of number symbolism in Bach analysis.) Numbers strongly associated with Christian faith -- 3 for the Trinity, 10 for the Ten Commandments, 12 for the disciples, Psalm numbers, etc. -- mingle with word conversion through use of gematria (application of a number alphabet: A=1, B=2, etc.). Thinking of this as riddles or secret messages embedded in the music misses the larger point; it's a way of making the structure of the music reflect its overt message, making it a holistic reinforcement rather than a hidden meaning. The focus of numerical symbolism research in Bach's music was long on his church works, but more recently, Helga Thoene has posited codes in Bach's solo violin sonatas, not only numerical analysis but also obscured quotations of chorales with strong emotional content; chorale quotations pop up in instrumental contexts in other Bach works as well, including The Well-Tempered Clavier. Ra also referred to earlier religious music in his own works; some of the Arkestra chant-songs can be partially traced back to spirituals.

Bach's otherworldly outlook came directly from his strong Lutheran beliefs, at least partially touched by the Pietist movement and its incorporation of the strains of mysticism  found in much earlier writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas ├á Kempis, influences on Luther himself. (However, Bach was definitely not sympathetic to the Pietist opposition to concerted music in church services!) Sun Ra's mysticism -- perhaps better characterized as his highly personalized way of reinterpreting the world -- came from a wider variety of sources. A telling glimpse comes from the Spring of 1971, when he taught an Afro-American Studies course at Berkeley (as pithily described by John F. Szwed in his invaluable Ra biography, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra). The course was called The Black Man in the Cosmos; the reading list included The Egyptian Book of the Dead; David Livingston's Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa; the King James Bible (which on the syllabus Ra called "The Source Book of Man's Life and Death"); P.D. Ouspensky's A New Model of the Universe; Yosef A.A. Ben-Jochannan's Black Man of the Nile and His Family; Frederick Bodmer's The Loom of Language; and a host of others, many even more esoteric. For the students to track down much of the list was a nightmare.

The Bible was a constant reference for Ra throughout his life, but his attitude towards it shifted to a belief that it required radical reinterpretation through permutation of passages into new meanings, sometimes the opposite meanings from what were ordinarily imputed to them. In effect, Ra was a modern-day Gnostic preaching that the world we live in is a world of illusion; he was fond of saying things such as, "I'm talking about space; I'm talking about not being part of this planet, because it's not proper," and, "This world is not my home. My home is out there." Compare this to the Lutheran sentiments in so many Bach cantatas: sin corrupts this world, and death is a passage into new and better life. Of course, to try to force too great a correspondence between Bach and Ra is unproductive, but the parallels are definitely there. Ultimately, there's no reason to try to prove a connection that's not a matter of fact, but rather intuitive and metaphorically enriching. Similarly, one need not be fluent in gematria to enjoy the contours of Bach's music.

Nor, for that matter, would a listener have to know any of the above to enjoy this album. Maestro Gaslini has constructed a varied program of Ra rarities and familiar items. "Out in Space" and "A Quiet Place in the Universe" exist, as far as is known at this time (certainly plenty of concert tapes continue to pop up) in only one version each, both recorded "live." Then there are pieces that perhaps existed only in the studio. "The Perfect Man" is an exceptional case, originally released only on a single. It's seemingly an unlikely candidate for this sort of tribute, an oddball attempt at pop that's peripheral to Sun Ra's jazz legacy aside from its use of synthesizer, on which Ra was a jazz pioneer. Gaslini can't duplicate the textures on a piano, but he largely keeps to the use of more vernacular style, especially boogie-woogie, with another Bach interpolation (with similar motion and rhythm, however) and an eruption of free playing just before the end. "When Angels Speak of Love" (Gaslini wonderfully captures its quirky, off-kilter lope), "Kingdom of Not," and "Lanquidity" are the other unique items chosen for this album.

"Yucatan" was released on only one album, Atlantis, but exists in two versions because when the album, first on Ra's own label, Saturn, was issued on the Impulse! label, a different tape was substituted. Gaslini ends his arrangement with a brief Bach quote that rhythmically matches the drums at the beginning of Sun Ra's versions, most closely the Saturn. "Satellites are Scanning" is the same piece as "The Satellites are Spinning," merely mistitled on the Enja album Destination Unknown that documents a March 1992 concert. But, of course, that's not to say that "Satellites are Scanning" sounds the same as "The Satellites are Spinning." The arrangements are really quite different, partly because the recording of "Scanning" dates from Ra's post-stroke period, when his left hand was greatly weakened. Gaslini's arrangements are also considerably different from each other. "Spinning" is noteworthy for several Bach insertions that move in and out in the tightest Bach/Ra integration of the album; they're themes that inherently suggest spinning. The first is soon dovetailed with Sun Ra's theme in a sensually and intellectually pleasing counterpoint that banishes sorrow just as June Tyson sings in the famous version from the soundtrack to Space Is the Place.

There is only one released studio recording of "Fate in a Pleasant Mood," but Ra revived it several decades later as a concert staple. "Images," "Medicine for a Nightmare," "Saturn," "Tapestry from an Asteroid," "Discipline 27," and "Interstellar Low Ways" were all revisited multiple times. The Bach in the middle of "Discipline 27" offers one of the starkest contrasts in this program as the spare first four measures of the Fugue in C minor from WTC II enter shortly after hectic, extreme dissonance; it proves to be a bridge to a pretty little vamp. "Interstellar Low Ways," closing the album, finds Gaslini, through the use of overdubs, also playing inside the piano, brushing and plucking the strings to add special colors to the stately presentation of this wistful number. As the tune gently dissolves into swirling, tinkling dissonance and then silence, we seem to have drifted into the quiet weightlessness of space, an apt place to conclude this interstellar journey.

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