Harmony of the Spheres was composer Neil Ardley's final album for a major label. Released by Decca in the U.K. in 1979. This is the record many of Ardley's most ardent (no pun intended) fans and jazz purists have dismissed out of hand. Simply put, both groups are wrong. The primary reason for this dislike is two-fold: first, the ubiquitous use of synthesizers. Given that this is a conceptual recording of the title, derived from the complex notions of the ancient Greeks, Ardley could find no acoustic instruments that could actually reproduce the sounds required. He assigned musical notes to each of the planets and discovered that the ratio of the orbit times of Mercury and Pluto (assigned the highest and lowest tones, respectively, because of their distance from the sun) were virtually identical to the ratio of frequencies of the sounds of the upper and lower range limits of human hearing. That this entire schemata is only approached and achieved once on the entire album, on "Soft Stillness & the Night," is immaterial. Ardley composed an entire suite around these sounds, the "harmony" as it were, and came up with a stellar jazz-rock set, that combines some of the very finest elements of prog, jazz improvisation, funk, and rock composition to hit record stores, and sounds distinctly different from anything else in his catalog. The cast on this brilliant album includes trumpeter Ian Carr and members of his band Nucleus, vocalist Norma Winstone, Tony Coe and Barbara Thompson on reeds and winds, Geoff Castle, Trevor Tomkins, Richard Burgess, Pepi Lemer, and the utterly amazing (and largely unrecognized) Billy Kristian, whose bassline is the anchor of the entire set, and who gets in some amazingly funky playing. The other big surprise is the appearance of John Martyn on electric guitar -- playing both lead and rhythm -- his playing here goes far beyond anything to appear on his own records -- let's put it this way, he could have hung with John Goodsall of Brand X without difficulty and possesses a trunkload of soul. Check out his smokin' fretwork on the opener "Upstarts All," which complements Kristian's bass work astutely. The disjointed funk on "Leap in the Dark" would have been right at home in many clubs at the time, though its syncopation would have thrown many. Here again, Kristian shines. Carr's genius is heard bountifully on "Head Strong, Headlong," that walks a line between jazz, funk, and blues. Taken as a whole, Harmony of the Spheres is not nearly as jarring now as it was when released, and is far less a "commercial" album than it was once considered. It's a fitting testimony to Ardley's compositional and sonic genius that he employs synthesizers as not only architectural building blocks but as actual melodic instruments as well. Only a brilliant pianist and harmonist could accomplish such a thing, and Ardley was both. Luckily for us, the grand British reissue label Esoteric released this set on CD for the first time in the West in 2008.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek