I haven’t gotten a chance to see Gravity yet but from what I’ve heard, the experience of seeing it on an Imax screen in 3D can induce existential terror at the vast emptiness of space and our fragility in the face of the forces of the cosmos. Forty-four years earlier, Alan Silva and His Celestrial Communication Orchestra accomplished that same thing musically with their first album for BYG Actuel, Luna Surface. Recorded less than a month after the Apollo 11 spacecraft touched down on the lunar surface, the album is both an incredibly assured debut as leader for Silva and a chaotic, relentless journey into the horrors of outer space.
Alan Silva was born in Bermuda in 1939 but he migrated with his mother to Harlem before the end of World War II. He picked up the bass at some point in this childhood and he made his first major splash on the instrument as a participant in the landmark October Revolution in Jazz, which trumpeter Bill Dixon put on at the Cellar Door in Manhattan. Around the same time he spent a brief time in Sun Ra’s Arkestra, giving him a taste for larger ensembles that he kept in the back of his mind over the next five years, which he spent in smaller bands led by Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Sunny Murray, and Archie Shepp. It was with the latter that Silva travelled to Algiers in July 1969 to perform at the Pan-African Festival which put him at ground zero for the nascent Actuel summer.
Silva had already recorded the excellent Skillfullness for ESP-Disk in November 1968, but its release was delayed until 1970. As a result, Luna Surface, recorded on July 20, 1969 in Paris, wound up being his first album. And what an album it is. An eleven-man ensemble redefines the meaning of the term ‘energy music’ over the course of the twenty-eight minute piece “From the Luna Surface,” which is split into two fourteen minute halves. The photo of Silva on the cover is of him playing his bass, but on the album itself he plays violin alongside amazing AACM violinist Leroy Jenkins. Instead, Bob Guerin and Malachi Favors hold down the bass, and these four are joined by Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, Dave Burrell, Kenneth Terroade, Claude Delcloo, Grachan Moncur III, and Bernard Vitet (on French horn!).
When Jimmy Lyons got his first opportunity to lead on a recording after several years with Cecil Taylor, as he did on Other Afternoons (BYG Actuel 09), he pulled away from Taylor’s basic sound and sonic intensity quite a bit. Silva did the exact opposite on Luna Surface, ratcheting up the intensity and chaos in a way that Taylor never did. “From the Luna Surface” opens spookily, all strings and piano and cymbals, but the horns come in quickly and from there we are treated to some of the most relentlessly intense and occasionally outright violent jazz ever recorded.
Amidst the flurry of sound most of the musicians manage to really impress. Moncur is capable of such volume on his trombone that his solos cut through the rest of the sound like a freshly sharpened knife. Braxton and Shepp both play soprano saxophone which is neither of their primary instruments, and the interplay between Shepp’s fire and Braxton’s mathematics is a joy. That more than a third of the ensemble consists of strings is an exciting choice. Leroy Jenkins is an underheralded jazz treasure and the best jazz violinist ever, and he is the musician who demands the most attention on Luna Surface. Claude Delcloo is mercifully low in the mix as he could not hope to compete with these other musicians’ power.
“From the Luna Surface Part 2” is a slightly different beast. The intensity of side one is still the dominant force in the first eight minutes, and some particularly excellent soprano work is one of the highlights of the piece. Yet unlike anything in “Part One,” things begin to cool down a bit around eight minutes in, allowing Burrell to take the central role before some sonic turbulence kicks in and Burrell is overpowered by the horns. The horns leave again about a minute later and we are treated to three and a half minutes of just the strings as the spacecraft that is the Celestrial Communication Orchestra has made it through the worst of its interstellar voyage and is approaching the luna surface. These four players, and particularly Silva and Jenkins, match their earlier intensity but without any of the other instruments the intensity has a markedly different character as less of a sonic scream and more of the kind of creeping dread that accompanies the frighteningly unknown. For the last minute, the strings disappear and are replaced by the other seven musicians for the least intense portion of the entire piece. It is as if the band, having made it through the terror of outer space, has now reached the stark grandeur of the luna surface. The marveling at this grandeur, and the album as a whole, ends abruptly like a life getting snuffed out by an atmosphere-less stellar environment.
Luna Surface is not the kind of album that is going to make too many easy fans, but if you’re willing to go in with an open mind and ears and let yourself get sucked in by the sheer insanity of the sound you’ll find a lot to love. There are few albums that are really comparable to this one, although Alan Silva attempted to rectify this with his mindblowing second Celestrial Communication Orchestra album for Actuel, Seasons. Seasons, which was recorded live for a progressive French radio station, is a colossal 140-minute 3LP with a nineteen piece band. Luna Surface is something of a dry run for Seasons, allowing Silva to test out this sonic approach before nearly doubling the size of the band and almost quadrupling the length of his composition. Yet that is something of a disservice to Luna Surface which more than stands on its own as one of the better albums in the BYG Actuel catalog.
Coming up in the weeks ahead:
Actuel 13: Paul Bley – Ramblin’
Actuel 14: Acting Trio – Acting Trio
Actuel 15: Anthony Braxton – B-Xo/N-0-1-47a
Actuel 16: Andrew Cyrille – What About?
Actuel 17: Joachim Kuhn – Sounds of Feelings
 I’m not sure why “celestial is misspelled as “celestrial,” but Silva used this band name on several releases and the misspelling is present on almost all of them so it must have been intentional.
 Taylor is too precise of a player to really give his all to chaos for any prolonged period of time.
 Only the late Billy Bang comes close.
 There are only a few BYG Actuel albums that are comparable to Luna Surface in sonic intensity, and the next of those is Dave Burrell’s Echo (BYG Actuel 20).
 Having at least some experience with less wild free jazz albums would certainly help prime you for this album as well.