Laraaji-Sun Piano.

Label: All Saints Records.

Format: LP.

On the album cover to his new album Sun Piano, which was released by All Saints Records, Laraaji describes playing the piano as: “my music therapy.” This is something the seventy-seven year has been doing since 1953, when he was just ten and living in New Jersey. 

Back then, he was still called Edward Larry Gordon and music was a big part of his life. He studied violin, piano, trombone and took singing lessons. Then at high school, the future Laraaji played in the school band and orchestra. Music was big part of his life.

His family attended the local Baptist church, where Laraaji heard choral and gospel music, as well as negro spirituals. At home though, he heard very different music.

Laraaji  sat and absorbed everything from jazz to R&B and rock ’n’ roll. However, it was the great piano players that inspired him including Oscar Peterson, Fats Domino and Ahmad Jamal. Over the next months and years, Laraaji spent much of his time listening to music. Still, though, he continued to play the violin, piano, trombone and sang. Music was his passion and it was no surprise that having graduated from high school this talented multi-instrumentalist decided to study music.

Having won a scholarship to study piano and composition, Laraaji headed to one of the most prestigious universities in America, Howard University, in Washington DC. During the next few years, he immersed himself in music, and also discovered marijuana for the first time. 

Then during his second year, Laraaji discovered psychedelic drugs which played an important part in opening his consciousness during his spiritual awakening. However, he would later use marijuana as an aide to the creative process. Before that, his friends and family were sure that Laraaji was destined to pursue a career in music. However, that wasn’t the case.

After graduating from Howard University, he decided not to pursue a career in music, which was a huge surprise to his friends, including this he had studied alongside. Instead, Laraaji decided to pursue a career as a standup comic. His love of comedy began in college, and when he left University, he and his comedy partner decided to head to New York to audition at the Bitter End, who regularly held talent shows.

The Bitter End seemed the perfect place to launch their new career. However, the night Laraaji and his comedy partner were meant to make their debut, his partner never turned up. After being left in the lurch, he had no option to make his debut as a solo artist. He was well received, and this was the start of his new comedy career. Soon he became a regular on New York’s thriving  comedy circuit.

Through his exploits as a comedian, Laraaji came to the attention of Ernestine McClendon, who was a respected theatrical agent. She took him under her wing and guided his nascent career. Soon, she was sending Laraaji to auditions, and before long, he found himself appearing on television commercials, theatre and even films. 

One of these films that Laraaji appeared in was Putney Swope, which was a comedy directed by Robert Downey which examined the of role race and advertising in America. Putney Swope was very different to anything he had appeared in before, as much of the film was improvised. This which was new to him, but something he coped with admirably in the film. 

In Putney Swope,  the chairman of an advertising company dies, and the firm’s executive board must elect someone to fill the vacant position. However, each member, is unable to vote for himself, and Swope who was the token African-American on the board is unexpectedly elected chairman. He decides to do things his way, and fires all the staff, apart from a lone white employee. Swope then renames the company Truth and Soul, Inc. and decides that he will no longer accept represents companies selling tobacco, alcohol and war toys. The film must have made a big impression on Laraaji, because when Putney Swope was released it inspired him to look at the role of the mass media. Looking for answers, he read books and learnt to meditate.

To help him, he turned to teachers who taught him how to meditate properly He soon was practising meditation and calisthenics. He was also using piano exercises as an outlet which was  how he discovered spontaneous music. Everything was improvised, off-the-cuff and experimental. Straight away, he realised the possibilities were endless. However, meditation was key to this. Soon, Laraaji was starting to realise just what he could do with music and art now that he had discovered meditation. Discovering meditation was akin to the first part of his spiritual awakening. Before long, the next part of his spiritual awakening took place.

Around 1974 or 1975, Laraaji found himself was living not far from JFK airport, and decided to go out for a walk in the evening. On his return home, he started hearing what he describes as: “the music of the spheres.” This was akin to a cosmic symphony where the music was joyous and celebratory. He became part of the music and was at one with the music. The whole experience had a lasting effect and was his spiritual and cosmic awakening. 

Suddenly, he understood things that had previously puzzled him. Things now started to make sense after what Laraaji refers to as: “a trigger for a cosmic memory.” It was as if he had been enlightened. However, he wanted to know more about what had happened, and decided to embarked on a course of study. 

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

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

A few days later, Laraaji found himself in a pawn shop where he was ready to pawn his guitar when suddenly, out of nowhere, a voice told him to swap his guitar for a stringed instrument in the shop window. This he realised was an autoharp, which he was unable to play. However, he decided to swap his guitar for the autoharp, and he after that, he headed home, where he was determined to master this new instrument.

When Laraaji 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 ancient, traditional instrument the kithara. Gradually, through a process of experimentation, he discovered what the autoharp was capable of. Then when he added an electric pickup, this was a game-changer, and he discovered that the possibilities were endless. He was able to begin creating the music that he had heard that fateful night, albeit with a little help from a friend. 

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

At the Boston Globe Music Fest, he met Steven Halpern who is one of the pioneers of New Age music. Meeting Steven exposed him to music that he never knew existed, and changed Laraaji’s way of thinking. He realised that music didn’t need to follow the structures that he had been taught as a child and at university. Music didn’t need to have a beginning, end or even a melody. Instead, it could be a freeform stream of consciousness. He also learnt that there was always 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, he was ready to make his debut. 

The old saying that the world is a stage proved to be the case for Larry, who made his debut as a busker on the streets of New York in 1978. He had released his first album Celestial Vibration in 1978, which he hoped would introduce his music to a wider audience. 

A year later, Larry was still busking and had self-released his sophomore album Lotus-Collage in 1979. However, he was busking abet in a different location. This proved fortuitous, while other said it was fate.

Laraaji was now busking in Washington Square Park and on that fateful day, he sat on top of a blanket, cross-legged and with his eyes closed, played his zither using the open tunings he favoured. As a result, he never saw Brian Eno standing watching him play. The man who many called The Godfather of ambient music was transfixed as he watched Laraaji play. Little did Brian Eno realise when he walked through the park with Bill Laswell that he would come  across a fellow innovator. Recognising the potential that the busker had, Brian Eno wrote a message on a piece of paper which Laraaji as he was now calling himself found later.

The next day Brian Eno met with Laraaji and the two men spoke about ambient music and electronics. Straight away, they got on and three weeks Laraaji, was heading to Apple Studios, in Green Street, New York where he recorded Ambient 3 (Day Of Radiance).

Later in 1980, Laraaji was preparing to release Ambient 3 (Day Of Radiance), which it was hoped would launch his career and transform him from an underground artist to a successful experimental musician. The album was a groundbreaking fusion of ambient, avant-garde, dub, electronica, experimental, folk, New Age and world music, and was well released to critical acclaim. Sadly, the album wasn’t a commercial success, although nowadays it’s regarded a cult classic and one of Laraaji’s finest albums.

In 1981 Laraaji returned with his new album, I Am Ocean which was released on the Celestial Vibration label, and was the much-anticipated followup to Ambient 3 (Day Of Radiance). However, it failed to make much of an impression upon its release. Later in 1981, Laraaji was back to self-releasing his next album Unicorns in Paradise. This was something he would do regularly throughout his five decade career.

During that period, Laraaji would release over thirty solo albums. He was a prolific and innovative artist who pushed musical boundaries on his genre-melting albums. Some of these albums were released by record companies. This includes the British independent label All Saints Records who released his 1992 solo album Flow Goes The Universe.

Since then, Laraaji has released a number of other solo albums on All Saints Records, including Sun Gong, Bring On The Sun and Sun Transformations. His new album is Sun Piano, which is very different from his previous albums. 

Instead of his usual effects laden cosmic zither jams, Laraaji returned to his first musical love on Sun Piano. It features twelve of Laraaji’s spiritual keyboard improvisations. They were recorded in the First Unitarian Church, Brooklyn, on the ‘10th’ and ‘11th’ December 2109 by Jeff Zeigler. It was quite different to other Laraaji sessions.

Unlike other artists, Laraaji didn’t want the church to close while he recorded Sun Piano. Instead, he wanted it to be just another day in the lives of those who use and attend the First Unitarian Church. It’s situated in a busy part of Brooklyn and members of the community use the church each and every day of the year. This could cause problems when recording the album.

Laraaji decided that the sound of the people of Brooklyn going about their business outside of the church would be part of the recording. So would the various community groups used the First Unitarian Church’s facilities. That is why everyday city sounds can be heard throughout the album. This ranges from the sound of schoolchildren playing, to police car sirens, chairs scraping, a door slamming and Laraaji breathing can all be heard during the twelve improvised pieces that became Sun Piano. There was no overdubbing, and instead, the spontaneous recordings were recorded vérité style. 

This meant that only the smallest amount of artificial techniques was used to clean up what was captured by the microphones. As a result, both the full dynamic range and true spirit of the session are captured on Sun Piano. However, some of the longer pieces on Sun Piano were edited by Christian Havins of Dallas Acid, who have collaborated with Laraaji. These shorter pieces are part of what’s a captivating and enchanting album where Laraaji at last fulfils his dream of releasing an album of piano improvisations.

The beautiful, melodic Embracing Me opens Piano Love and is a tantalising taste of what’s to come. This includes the hopeful sounding Hold On To The Vision which is full of emotion and beauty. Flow Joy combines emotion, drama and a joyousness which flows from Laraaji’s fingers through as he play the grand piano with confidence and power. 

There’s a wistful sound to Shenandoah as Laraaji stabs at the keyboard as if making a point. The arrangement becomes jaunty, jazz-tinged and cinematic and later, there’s a sense of hope as he finishes with a flourish.

Initially, there’s a hesitancy as This Too Shall Pass unfolds. Space is left in the arrangement which probes and meanders, changing course as Laraaji showcases his confident playing style. It becomes grand and dramatic as he pounds the keyboard, but later bright and melodic as waves of majestic music wash over the listener.

Sunny Day Horse has a cinematic quality and finds Laraaji painting pictures with the piano. Later, the music becomes mesmeric and it’s easy to imagine riding through the countryside  on a sunny day. Especially as the track takes on a pastoral quality that seems far from Brooklyn on a mid-December day.

Elevation is an enchanting track that ebbs and flow, carrying the listener along in its wake. The music meanders and is variously uplifting, joyous and later meditative although beauty is omnipresent on one of this Sun Piano’s highlights. So is Temple Of New Light with its languid, meandering, meditative sound.

Very different is Moods and Emotions where Laraaji almost pounds at the piano during what is akin to an emotional roller coaster. Laraaji’s piano chimes and ripples on the mesmeric and spellbinding Lifting Me. Resonance is a ruminative sounding track that invites reflection, but like many of the improvised pieces on Sun Piano beauty is omnipresent. It’s a similar case on the album closer Embracing Timeless, which has a spacious, hopeful and pastoral sound. Laraaji has kept one of the best until last.

Forty-two years after Laraaji released his debut album, the seventy-seven year old releases his first ever album of spiritual keyboard improvisations, Sun Piano. These twelve pieces were recorded in the First Unitarian Church, in Brooklyn over two days in December 2019. During these two days, the  church was open and being used by the local community. The sound of the community, and the people of Brooklyn going about their business can be heard throughout Sun Piano. This plays its part on what’s an enchanting and captivating album where Laraaji returns to the piano which was his first musical love.

The music on Sun Piano is variously cinematic, dramatic, emotive, languid, meditative, meandering, melodic, mesmeric, ruminative and spacious. It’s also a beautiful and timeless album that shows another side to Laraaji one of music’s best kept secrets who has spent a lifetime creating groundbreaking music, and has just released one of his finest albums Sun Piano which will brighten up even the darkest day.

Laraaji-Sun Piano.

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