LARAAJI-CELESTIAL MUSIC 1978-2011.

LARAAJI-CELESTIAL MUSIC 1978-2011.

Although Laraaji is one of the most innovative musicians of his generation, he remains one of music’s best kept secrets. That’s despite releasing nearly thirty albums. Many of these albums showcase Laraaji’s unique ambient sound. Best known for playing the zither,  Laraaji’s music is best described as a fusion of ambient, experimental and psychedelia. Hypnotic, mesmeric and meditative also describes Laraaji’s music. That includes the music that features on Celestial Music 1978-2011, a which was recently released by All Saints Records.

Celestial Music 1978-2011 is a double album, featuring twenty tracks. Disc one is entitled Cosmic Tape Experiments and features nine groundbreaking tracks. They were recorded between 1979 and 1987, and document how Laraaji’s music evolved. On disc two, which is entitled Music Of The Spheres, it features another eleven tracks. These tracks were recorded between 1978 and 2011. There’s even collaborations with Jonathan Goldman, Audio Active, Bill Laswell and Blues Control. Quite simply, Celestial Music 1978-2011 is the most in-depth retrospective of Laraaji’s music. It’s the perfect introduction to a musician who pushed musical boundaries to their limits, and sometimes, beyond. Before I tell you about some of the music on Celestial Music 1978-2011, I’ll tell you about Laraaji’s life.

It was in Philadelphia in 1943, that Edward Larry Gordon was born. At an early age, Edward and his family moved to New Jersey, where he studied violin, piano, trombone and singing. At high school, Larry was playing in the school band and orchestra. Music was part of Larry’s life. He was exposed to an eclectic range of music.  His family attended the local Baptist church, so Larry heard choral and gospel music, as well as negro spirituals. Then at home, he listened to everything from jazz, R&B and rock ’n’ roll. The great piano players inspired Larry. This included Oscar Peterson, Fats Domino and Ahmad Jamal. So it was no surprise that having graduated from high school, Larry decided to study music.

Having won a scholarship to study piano and composition, Larry headed to one of the most prestigious universities in America, Howard University, in Washington D.C. He spent the next few years immersed in music. It seemed that Larry was destined to pursue a career in music. That wasn’t the case.

After graduating from Howard University, Edward decided not to pursue a career in music. Instead, Larry decided to pursue a career as a standup comic. His love of comedy began in college. Then when he left University, Larry and his comedy partner decided to head to New York, to audition at the Bitter End,  who regularly held talent shows. This was where Bill Cosby’s comedy career began. For an aspiring comedian, this seemed the perfect place to launch their new career. However, the night Larry and his comedy partner were meant to make their debut, his partner never turned up. Having been left in the lurch, he had to make his debut as a solo artist. He was well received. That was the start of Larry’s comedy career. Soon he became a regular on the New York comedy circuit. Comedy wasn’t the only career Larry had.

Through his exploits as a comedian, Larry came to the attention of Ernestine McClendon, who was a respected theatrical agent. She took Larry under her wing and guided his nascent career. Larry was sent to auditions, and soon, was appearing on television commercials, in theatre and even in films. One of these films Putney Swope. Much of the film was improvised. When it came out, it inspired Larry to look at the role of the mass media. Looking for answers, Larry read books and learnt to meditate. 

To help him, he turned to teachers who taught Larry how to mediate. He soon was practising meditation and calisthenics. Larry was also using piano exercises as an outlet. This is how he discovered spontaneous music. Everything was improvised, off-the-cuff and experimental. Straight away, Larry realised the possibilities were endless. However, meditation was key to this. He could do with music and art now he’d discovered meditation.  Discovering meditation was akin to a spiritual awakening. Before long, the next part of Larry’s Meditation spiritual awakening took place.

Around 1974 or 1975, Larry was living near JFK airport. One night he had been out walking,  and on his return home, he started hearing what he describes as “the music of the spheres.” This was akin to a cosmic symphony. The music was joyous and celebratory. Larry became part of the music. He was at one with the music. The whole experience had a lasting effect. It was a spiritual and cosmic awakening. Suddenly, he understood things that had puzzled him. Things made sense after what Larry refers to as “a trigger for a cosmic memory.” It was as if Larry had been enlightened. However, he wanted to know more about what had happened. So, he embarked on a course of study.

To further understand what had happened to him, Larry embarked upon a study of Vedic teachings. Part of the Vedic teachings is that the yogis hear music in layers. This is what Larry had experienced, and why he was able to describe the music so vividly. His teachers told him he’d reached such a high level of consciousness that he was able to see things differently from most people. It seemed his spiritual and cosmic awakening was almost complete. Now he wanted to recreate the music he’d heard.

At last, Larry was able to put his musical education to good use. He’d always played music, even when he was working as a comedian and actor. Latterly, he’d been playing the Fender Rhodes. However, Larry was fed up having to transport such a heavy instrument. One night as he was preparing to go onstage, he told his “cosmic ear” he’d “like a lighter instrument to share his musical consciousness with the world.”

A few days later, Larry found himself in a pawn shop, ready to pawn his guitar, when out of nowhere, a voice told Larry to swap his guitar for a stringed instrument in the shop window. This was an autoharp. Now all Larry had to do was master this new instrument.

When Larry took the instrument home, he tuned it to his favourite piano chords and open guitar tunings. The effect this had, was to return it to what was essentially a zither, whose roots can be traced back the the ancient, traditional instrument the kithara. Gradually, through a process of experimentation, Larry discovered what the autoharp was capable of. Then when he added an electric pickup, this was a game-changer. The possibilities were endless. He was able to begin creating the music he’d heard that fateful night, albeit with a little help from a friend. 

Not long after Larry begin playing the autoharp, he was strumming and plucking it like a guitar. That seemed the way to play the autoharp. That’s until he  met Dorothy Carter. She was hammered dulcimer artist and encouraged Larry to play his autoharp with hammers. The other thing Dorothy did, was invite Larry to the Boston Globe Music Fest. That’s where Larry met another innovator.

At the Boston Globe Music Fest, Larry met Steven Halpern. It’s no exaggeration to say, that he is a pioneer of new age music. Meeting Steven exposed him to music that he never new existed. It changed Larry’s way of thinking. He realised that music didn’t need to follow the structures that he’d been taught. Music didn’t need to have a beginning, end or even a melody. Instead, it could be a freeform stream of consciousness. There was room for experimentation and improvisation within music. For Larry this changed his approach to music. Inspired and confident in his ability to play the autoharp, Larry was ready to make his debut.

They say all the world is a stage, well that proved to be the case for Larry. He made his debut as a busker on the streets of New York in 1978. A year later, Larry was playing in Washington Square Park. Sitting on top of a blanket, cross-legged and with his eyes closed, Larry played his zither using the open tunings he favoured. So he never saw Brian Eno standing watching him. The Godfather of ambient music was transfixed. He’d been walking through the park with Bill Laswell and came across a fellow innovator. Recognising the potential that Larry had, Brian Eno wrote a message to Larry on a piece of paper.

This message asked whether Larry would be interested in working with him on a recording project. For Larry this was kismet. A few weeks previously, people watching Larry play suggested Larry might like Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s music. Here, lying at his feet when he opened his eyes after playing, was a message from Robert Eno. This Larry felt was an example of cosmic synchronicity. So he contacted Brian Eno.

The next day they met and spoke about ambient music and electronics. Straight away, they got on. Three weeks later, Larry now calling himself Laraaji, headed to Apple Studios, in Green Street, New York. That was where the five tracks that became Day Of Radiance, Laraaji’s debut album was recorded. A groundbreaking and progressive fusion of ambient, electronica, folk and world music, Day Of Radiance, was critically acclaimed upon its release in 1980. This was the first of nearly thirty albums Laraaji recorded. 

Most of the albums recorded and released by Laraaji, were released independently. Granted a few were released on record labels, including collaborations with artists like Jonathan Goldman, Audio Active, Bill Laswell and Blues Control. These collaborations meant Laraaji’s music was heard be a wider audience. However, mostly, he remained one of the best kept secrets in music. Not any more. All Saints Records recently released Celestial Music 1978-2011, which I’ll pick the highlights of.

DISC ONE-COSMIC TAPE EXPERIMENTS.

Disc one of Celestial Music 1978-2011 is entitled Cosmic Tape Experiment. It features nine groundbreaking tracks.  They were recorded between 1979 and 1987, which is at the start of Laraaji’s long career.  This document how Laraaji’s music evolved. if you listen to the music on disc one, you’ll hear Laraaji evolve and mature as an artist. He blossoms as a musician, during the nine tracks which I’ll pick the highlights of.

Lotus Collage opens disc one of Celestial Music 1978-2011. Recorded in 1979, Laraaji plays his zither with hammers. There’s a sense of urgency in his playing. Indeed, he’s playing as if his very life depends upon it. He creates a hypnotic, mesmeric and celestial symphony. It sounds like a reflection of modern day society, everyone rushing to get somewhere. Later, the tempo slows. Space is left within the music. The music resonates into the distance. It takes on a meditative quality. It’s captivating. A zen like calm descends, as waves of music wash over you, calling and soothing you. From there the music veers between urgent and tranquil. Always, the music is captivating and enthralling.

I Am Ocean, which was recorded in 1981, has an understated blissful sounds. As Laraaji plucks the strings of his zither, the music is like ripples on a pond. Gradually the music unfolds, sharing its secrets and inner beauty. Ambient, electronica and dub are combined during two ethereal and beautiful minutes of music.

Rhythm ‘N’ Bliss is another short track. Just ninety seconds long, it was recorded in 1982. Here, drama and ethereal beauty unite. Laraaji draws inspiration from ambient, electronica, folk and rock to create a hypnotic, intriguing and irresistible track.

Sun Zither shimmers and quivers, as it meanders into being. Filters are used effectively. It’s as if they’re hiding part of the arrangement. It builds and builds, and eventually, it’s as if a cloud that was blocking the sun has moved. The filters are gone and we can hear the whole of the arrangement. It veers between melodic  to discordant and experimental. Always, it’s enthralling as Laraaji innovates. After, ascending and descending scales, the tempo speeds up, as Laraaji experiments with the tape. This adds a new dimension. So does when an ambient, zen like calm descends. It’s only disturbed by Laraaji trailing his hammers across the zither’s strings. This results in a wistful, melancholy, melodic and poignant sounding track.

Choosing the highlights of disc one of Celestial Music 1978-2011 wasn’t easy. The quality of music is of the highest standard. There’s no filler whatsoever. Each track is a captivating. It’s pioneering, groundbreaking music from one of the forgotten musical innovators. That’s despite releasing nearly thirty albums. These nine tracks are just a taste of the music Laraaji recorded during the past thirty-six years. Luckily, to do Laraaji’s music justice, Celestial Music 1978-2011 is a double album.

DISC TWO-MUSIC OF THE SPHERES.

On disc two of Celestial Music 1978-2011, which is entitled Music Of The Spheres, it features another eleven tracks. These eleven tracks tracks were recorded between 1978 and 2011. Four of the tracks are collaborations, This includes collaborations with Jonathan Goldman, Audio Active, Bill Laswell and Blues Control. The other seven tracks are Laraaji pushing musical boundaries in his pursuit of creating the Celestial Music he heard that night in New York.

The Dance No.3 was recorded in 1980. Dramatically bursts into life. Confidently, Laraaji hammers the strings of his zither while an ethereal, celestial sound accompanies. Drama, beauty and seraphic, an otherworldly symphony unfolds, leaving a lasting impression.

Space Choir has an elegant, ethereal sci-fi sound. It was recorded in 1992. Here, a choir of angelic bodies cascade, whilst a droning sound challenges it for supremacy. They compete for your attention. As the angelic choir leaves space within the arrangement, bubbling synths and the ever-present drone fill the spaces in this moody, celestial and cinematic arrangement.

Staccato was recorded in 2008, and has Laraaji’s trademark ambient sound. That’s  before thunderous drums enter. Thankfully, they don’t overpower the tender, melancholy sound of Laraaji’s zither. As the drums reverberate and resonate, the track is full of contrasts and polar opposites. Whilst the zither is subtle and understated, the thundering, cracking drums make their presence felt. Despite that, they prove a perfect foil for each other, playing their part in a track where the music of the past and present, results in the music of the future. This fusion of ambient and electronica results in music that’s timeless.

The final track from Celestial Music 1978-2011 I’ve chosen is As Light. It’s another track recorded in 2008. It has an experimental, ambient sound. As usual, Laraaji sets out to create groundbreaking music. It could be described as cinematic, ethereal, experimental, discordant or space-age. The arrangement shimmers, quivers as it meanders. Given the track’s moody, broody, cinematic sound, it would make the perfect soundtrack to a sci-fi film.

Disc two of Celestial Music 1978-2011, picks up where disc one left off. Right through the eleven tracks, the quality never drops. Laraaji continues to push musical boundaries to their limits, and sometimes, beyond. To do this, he combines musical genres. Just like on disc one, ambient, electronica, psychedelia and rock are combined during the eleven tracks. Four of these tracks are collaborations. Fittingly, they’re with fellow innovators, including Jonathan Goldman, Audio Active, Bill Laswell and Blues Control. These collaborations seem to inspire Laraaji to even greater heights of creativity as he creates music that’s innovative, spiritual and multilayered.

That’s fitting. After all, through his study of Vedic teachings Laraaji learnt how the yogis were able to hear music in layers. Larry himself had experienced that, back in the mid-seventies. The music he heard, he was able to describe it vividly. Fittingly, now he was creating similar cosmic symphonies. These cosmic symphonies were multilayered, and full of subtleties and nuances. This isn’t orthodox music. No. The music on Celestial Music 1978-2011 improvised and spontaneous. Sometimes, the music grows legs, heading in unexpected directions. It’s as if Laraaji has decided to through a curveball. Other times it’s a double bluff. That’s why the music music Laraaji created is best described as cinematic, space-age and celestial. It’s lush, dreamy, understated, moody, broody, trippy and lysergic. Just like Brian Eno’s music, this is music that you’ll never tire of.

Quite simply, Laraaji has created music that’s timeless. Even though some of the music was recorded in 1978, it still has a contemporary sound. It has stood the test of time and remains relevant. That will always be the case. Maybe that’s partly down to the simplicity of the music? It’s created by Laraaji with an instrument whose origins date back to the ancient Greeks. Laraaji is keeper of the flame for the zither and has taken it in a new direction. That’s why Laraaji, one of American music’s best kept secrets, will forever be perceived as a musical pioneer.

Just like numerous pioneers who’ve preceded him, Laraaji created music that many people didn’t understand. Like his mentor Brian Eno, he was ahead of his time. Only now, are people able to understand and appreciate his music. A snapshot of his music can be found on Celestial Music 1978-2011. The twenty tracks on Celestial Music 1978-2011 remind me of the changing of the seasons. Each offers something new and different. Every track toys with your emotions. It takes you on a journey, painting pictures in your mind. Sometimes, you’re taken places you never expected to go. All you need to do to enjoy this journey, is immerse yourself in the music,  close your eyes and embark upon this musical journey. It’s variously melancholy, wistful, challenging, beautiful, elegant, ethereal and always, innovative. Celestial Music 1978-2011 which was recently released by All Saints Records, also features music I’d describe as meditative, mesmeric and hypnotic. This makes Celestial Music 1978-2011 the perfect introduction to Laraaji and his cosmic symphonies. Standout Tracks: Lotus Collage, Sun Zither, The Dance No.3 and Space Choir.

LARAAJI-CELESTIAL MUSIC 1978-2011.

Lotus Collage

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