Sun Ra's pivotal recording Heliocentric Worlds, Vol. I is one of those efforts that any fan of challenging improvised music should own. Done in the spring of 1965, it parallels many of the more important statements of the time, like John Coltrane's movement toward unabashed free jazz, the developed music of Ornette Coleman, emerging figures like Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, and a fully flowered Albert Ayler. The Solar Arkestra was a solid 11-piece group, with hefty contributions by saxophonists Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, Danny Davis, and Robert Cummings, lone trumpeter Chris Capers, trombonists Teddy Nance and Bernard Pettaway, and the exceptional bassist Ronnie Boykins, playing strictly instrumental music, with no chants or vocal space stories. What is most intruguing about this Ra band is that the leader plays very little acoustic piano, choosing to focus his attention primarily on the bass marimba, and to a lesser extent an electrically amplified celeste. It's the prelude of his move to a raw but technologically driven sound as the synthesizer would come into his arsenal of instruments shortly after this. There's the deep blues of "Heliocentric," low key until lion-roaring horns enter, but the rip-snorting attitude of "Outer Nothingness" changes the tone, as multiple layers of improvisation build only to a mezzo forte level, with a collective percussion solo and the deeply hued, resonant, wooden bass marimba as played by the leader. Ra returns to his plucky sounding acoustic piano for the improvised "Other Worlds," then moves to the shimmering celeste while Boykins leads the charge of the full ensemble with a scattershot, fiery, chaotic, mad free bop. Perhaps a track that most perfectly represents the democratic nature of the Arkestra, "The Cosmos" features many segments stitched together, whether it be the bowed bass of Boykins stringing tied notes in seconds and thirds, Ra's galactic celeste, or bits and pieces of the horn section stepping up and out, with the final note struck by Jimhmi Johnson's royal tympani. An Egyptian, march-implied theme ruminates through "Of Heavenly Things" with the bass marimba and Allen's piccolo in the middle, "Nebulae" is a feature for the dense celeste of Ra played alone, and the conclusionary "Dancing in the Sun" is a two-minute burst of free bebop with Ra back at the piano. What makes this music so joyful and even organized is the way that individual voicings are able to both stand on their own, and work in context improvisationally. Though not quite the full-blown, magnum opus, operatic space drama the band would eventually conceive, the planted seeds from the huge tree of what they were about to accomplish are sown in this truly remarkable effort, still an event, and a turning point for early creative music.
AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos