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Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy

Adventures in jazz discovery

On a personal note, I love how so many of the great jazz albums use modern art imagery as an influence on their sleeve designs. "Bird and Diz" (1952), "Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet" (1957), "Time Out" (1959), "Mingus Ah Um" (1959), "Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation" (1961), "Getz/Gilberto" (1963). Like those albums and others, the cover art for "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy" is pure abstract expressionism; the imagery capturing something of the sparse, near-ambient nature of the music contained within. As an explosion of modernism - which suggests images and emotions, as opposed to outright stating them in clear or simple terms - the artwork evokes the music and vice versa; creating a statement, both aesthetically and culturally; framing jazz, the genre, as somehow existing hand-in-hand with the earlier twentieth-century innovations in modern art.

As a record, or as an experience, "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy" could be described as like entering a darkened room with a mosquito. At first, the constant vibrations of the insect, as it buzzes, unseen, in the darkness, might evoke a particular sense of discomfort; a feeling of anxiety that suggests something bad or unpleasant is about to take place. Give it time however, and the hissing, whirring and buzzing sounds of the instrumentation as it passes from speaker to speaker, phased, as if again like an insect, dive-bombing around the head and ears of the attentive listener, becomes immersive, even hypnotic. Listen hard enough through the clamour and cacophony, and the melodies and counter melodies, the locked-in rhythms, become clear.

Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy [Sun Ra and His Myth Science Arkestra, 1967]:

The opening track, 'And Otherness', feels like a clarion call across a desolate plain. North African influences seem to swirl about its discordant horn-sounds and complex rhythms, adding little blocks of colour and atmosphere throughout. There's an air of the ceremonial about this - something regal and majestic almost; like it could be the soundtrack to the inauguration of some new God-head or future king - but it's all too fragmented, as if the event is being recalled from the depths of an out-of-body experience or a chemically induced daze. 'And Otherness' sets a tone for the rest of the album, embodying the kind of free expressionism that typifies subsequent tracks, such as 'Thither and Yon', or the epic 'Adventure-Equation.' Here things start to stray into the realm of the pre-psychedelic, with its distorted drum pattern and layers of additional percussion building slowly; so drenched in echo and reverberation that the rhythm track becomes like the heavy flutter of a billion butterfly wings. Later, the horns arrive in waves of melody, ebbing and flowing across the tribal bedrock of drowned percussion, trilling and ringing; threatening to become a song in the conventional sense before unravelling again into something less structured, more formless, more free.

Side two of the record is a thing of beauty. Moving from 'Moon Dance', with its at-first cacophonous use of percussion - which sounds like a junkyard orchestra hammering on the trashcans, or like a heavy storm rattling the pots and pans - it soon reveals a complex system of rhythms all rolling then breaking, catching a staccato grove, then fragmenting into organs and other instruments, all blowing bursts of melody, notes and noise. The lo-fi nature of the recording suggests something amateur or homemade but the talent on display is nothing of the sort. The final track, 'Voice of Space' is an almost eight minute excursion into ambient minimalism, with the same fluttering percussion and seesawing brass and woodwinds suggesting further hints of melody, before separating along paths of discordant expression. Some of the instrumentation seems to recall the influence of "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima" by Krzysztof Penderecki, where the music has an inherent tension; a kind of clenching and unclenching of the figurative fists. Stabs of organ, like an ambulance siren, throw colour through the darkness, suggest an influence for the iconic introduction to the classic 1967 Van Morrison song, T.B. Sheets.

Recorded in 1963 but not released until 1967, "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy" is one of the many highlights of Sun Ra's prolific and pioneering career. While other albums would combine and refine his various influences - including jazz, funk, psychedelia, quote/unquote 'world music' and the foundations of what would eventually be termed Afrofuturism - "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy" is much sparser, seemingly less structured, but no less compelling. Every Sun Ra album seems to have its own colour and texture, capturing as it does a specific mood that sustains itself throughout. "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy" is no exception.


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