Images (In a Mirror)
Blues At Midnight
With 1959's Jazz in Silhouette, pianist and bandleader Sun Ra (Alabama-born Herman Poole Blount, a.k.a. Le Sony’r Ra) issued one of the summative statements of his fertile ’50s tenure in Chicago. By 1961, he was in New York, where his music took a decidedly avant-garde turn, reflective of the nascent free-jazz movement swirling around him (though even within that movement, he remained hard to classify). Jazz in Silhouette is by contrast a swinging hard-bop record, with conventional solo rotations and song forms for the most part. (“Velvet” is straight-up bebop, and the album also has some of tenor saxophonist John Gilmore’s finest playing on record.) But it also bears hints of the interstellar traveler he'd soon become.
Even in this more traditional mode, there was something appealingly “off” about Sun Ra and His Arkestra, which operated its own label, El Saturn, with Ra’s business associate Alton Abraham. Jazz in Silhouette, subtitled “Images and Forecasts of Tomorrow,” was El Saturn’s fourth LP; many more would follow. The brilliant hand-drawn album covers, the loopy, mystical sci-fi imagery and wordplay, all the ephemera (business cards, handbills, and such) generated by the label: These materials have been exhibited at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center and also in Philadelphia, where Ra was based from 1968 until shortly before his death in 1993. El Saturn became a forerunner of every DIY artist-run punk and indie label in the decades to come (Greg Ginn’s SST is the go-to example).
“Ancient Aiethopia,” with its trance-like aura, angular melodies, and colorful percussion, is the one track from Jazz in Silhouette that best evokes the famed Sun Ra persona—elaborate headdresses and capes, a fascination with Egyptology and space travel, a style of self-presentation and philosophy that came to be known as Afrofuturism and holds an honored place in black art and culture. (As Sun Ra scholars have noted, it’s reasonable that an African American artist in the ’50s would devote serious thought to escaping Earth for other worlds.)
Jazz in Silhouette also has echoes of earlier jazz. There are moments in the harmony and orchestration of “Ancient Aiethopia” that recall Duke Ellington; the same can be said of the leadoff track “Enlightenment,” a signature Arkestra live piece that only got more adventurous in the decades to follow. The prominent baritone sax of Pat Patrick could certainly evoke the Ellington band’s Harry Carney. Ra’s territory band experience and work with Fletcher Henderson also left a vintage-jazz imprint on his playing (he was born in 1914, just a dozen or so years after Louis Armstrong). As for what explains Ra’s choice of celeste, rather than piano, for a challenging uptempo bebop solo on the closing track “Blues at Midnight,” perhaps Ra said it best when he told critic Robert Palmer in 1978: “I’ve got my equations, and these equations are valid.”