When the Sky Is a Sea of Darkness: A Few Listening Options For the Solar Eclipse

Aug 19, 2017

You know it’s coming, you’ve stocked your provisions. But what is your soundtrack for the eclipse? We’ve got a few ideas.

Sun Ra, “When There is No Sun”

“Sky is a sea of darkness / When there is no sun.” There isn’t a much more concise distillation of the moment than this lyric, sung here by Sun Ra and the other members of his quartet: trumpeter Michael Ray, tenor saxophonist John Gilmore and drummer Luqman Ali. The recording was made in 1978, in Rome, and originally released on the album New Steps. (A couple of years ago, producer Gilles Peterson included it on the Strut compilation To Those Of Earth... And Other Worlds.) The mood is quiet and a little uneasy — precisely like the cosmic moment it describes.

Bobby Hutcherson, “Total Eclipse”

Sometimes the answer staring you in the face is just the thing you can’t see. (There’s an eclipse metaphor there, somewhere.) I first posted this list without the Bobby Hutcherson track above, and was promptly alerted to my omission on Twitter. (Good looking out, Richard.) Total Eclipse was recorded 50 years ago, and sounds no less fresh today. Hutcherson builds a suspenseful narrative with his vibraphone solo; has an effortless hookup with Harold Land on tenor saxophone; and leads a killer rhythm section, with pianist Chick Corea, bassist Reggie Johnson and drummer Joe Chambers. 

Brad Mehldau Trio, “Black Hole Sun”

Brad Mehldau has recorded his trio at the Village Vanguard several times over the years; this recording appears on the album simply known as Brad Mehldau Trio Live. The band is playing  the most iconic Soundgarden tune, a pained, dreamy dirge. Mehldau sets a processional tempo, but as Larry Grenadier gets into his bass solo, there’s an inexorable flip into double time. Things almost get downright springy — but there’s always a hint of shadow, a suggestion that Chris Cornell’s darkness is something Mehldau has carefully considered. (See especially the rubato exploration that begins around the seven-minute mark.)

Charles Mingus, “Eclipse”

Like the Hutcherson pick above, this one also slipped through the cracks. Then I was politely reminded of the Charles Mingus tune “Eclipse,” from the album known variously as Pre-Bird (1961) or Mingus Revisited (1965). It’s a ballad featuring the rather obscure Lorraine Cusson on vocals, singing lyrics that paint the picture almost too perfectly. For this reason, I thought for a moment about featuring another, more canonical Mingus track instead: “Tonight at Noon,” which requires at least a little interpretive energy. But it’s hard to resist a song with lyrics like these: “People all around / Eyes look up and frown / For it’s a sight they seldom see.” (Thanks for the nudge, Stefan.)

Sarah Vaughan, “Midnight Sun”

The more on-the-nose choice would be “How High the Moon,” which of course was an Ella Fitzgerald special. But I find that selection too chipper for our purposes here. So instead, here is Sarah Vaughan in 1978, backed by only the best: pianist Oscar Peterson, guitarist Joe Pass, bassist Ray Brown, drummer Louie Bellson. Her treatment of Johnny Mercer’s lyrics is luxurious (“I can't explain the silver rain that found me / Or was that a moonlit veil?”), and so is her nearly glacial progress with the melody. What the words describe isn’t an eclipse per se, but something like its inverse — still transfixing, still rare, still something worth savoring.

Eric Revis, “Rye Eclipse”

A composition by pianist Kris Davis, who gave an album this title in 2008. Davis rerecorded it on a date by bassist Eric Revis, with whom she has an excellent rapport. In this performance, from the new album Sing Me Song Cry, a freeform bass solo sets the tone before the band — also with Ken Vandermark on tenor saxophone and Chad Taylor on drums — essay the haunting melody, with an underlay of staccato unrest.

“East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)”

Consider the coordinates. At a certain point, before traverse is underway, you might reach for a phrase like this. You’ll certainly want to reach for this version of the Brooks Bowman standard, as recorded by tenor saxophonist Stan Getz for his 1955 album West Coast Jazz. There’s a nice, concise trumpet solo by Conte Candoli, and a solid couple of choruses at the piano by Lou Levy. Getz sounds fabulous, of course.

Keith Jarrett Trio, “Solar”

“Solar” had to make this list, and there are no shortage of fantastic performances of the tune. This concert clip — a 1993 hit in Tokyo by Keith Jarrett’s longtime trio, with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums — is searching yet light on its feet, with a beautiful interplay. And because this mighty band is no more, there’s also a hint of the ephemeral here, of certain fantastic alignments that can only last so long.  

Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse, “Morphing”

Finally, a sublime recording released just weeks ago. Steve Coleman, the alto saxophonist and composer, has been known to make a study of astronomical trajectories; it’s no accident that he calls his chamber-like new ensemble Natal Eclipse. Much of their new album, Morphogenesis, deals with boxing metaphors. But you can picture a more celestial inspiration on a track called “Morphing,” which involves a lot of brisk maneuvers by the woodwinds, and some annunciatory singing by Jen Shyu. This is just a taste of the track, which runs a total of 14 minutes, and can be purchased (along with the rest of the album) at Coleman’s Bandcamp page.