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Laraaji, "Segue To Infinity"

Segue to InfinityThis quadruple LP boxed set is likely to be an absolute revelation for Laraaji fans, as Numero Group has combined his landmark 1978 debut (Celestial Vibration) with the equivalent of three lost albums recorded around the same time. The albums in question surfaced in 2021 when some acetates from an abandoned storage locker were auctioned off and passed through a flea market and Ebay before being spotted by eagle-eyed college student Jake Fischer, who snapped them up for $114 after recognizing Laraaji's given name (Edward Larry Gordon, the name he was still using at the time of Celestial Vibration's release). Amusingly, even Laraaji himself is a bit mystified by the provenance of these recordings, as the documentation states that they were recorded at a studio in Long Island 200 miles from where the Celestial Vibration sessions took place (ZBS in Fort Edward). While it remains unclear whether the Fort Edward tapes were merely transferred in Long Island or whether these recordings actually originate from a different session altogether in Queens, they are unmistakably Laraaji and they are frequently as good or better than the album that actually got released. Finds like this are exactly why there are Discogs fiends hunting for lost private press New Age music, as the late '70s and early '80s were a golden age for bedroom visionaries who thanklessly explored the cosmos with little hope of ever reaching an audience. Laraaji deserves a particularly special place in that pantheon, as he may have been the most forward-thinking visionary of them all and also took his autoharp to the goddamn streets to expand the consciousness of unwitting strangers.

Numero Group

The story of how former Baptist/Apollo Theater comedian/cult film actor/Marvin Gaye collaborator/street musician/West Village folk scenester Ed "Flash" Gordon eventually transformed into Laraaji is far too lengthy for me to do it any justice here, but one especially significant event was that Gordon became very interested in Eastern spirituality after his role in Putney Swope stirred up doubts about the righteousness of the path he was on. A "paranormal sound-hearing experience" and a fateful decision to trade his guitar in for an autoharp at a pawnshop soon followed, as well as the similarly fateful purchase of a contact pickup and some effects pedals. While the autoharp was an entirely new instrument for Gordon, he dove wholeheartedly into exploring open tunings and effects and quickly arrived at a new sound he dubbed "Celestial Vibration." Having reached that point, I suspect Laraaji would have been totally content to play in parks, dance/yoga studios, and holistic centers around his community forever, as getting a record deal probably does not seem all that important once you have already figured out how to channel celestial vibrations. Exterior forces intervened, however, and Gordon met a lawyer named Stuart White who was absolutely enthralled with his music and eager to start up an independent record label (SWN). That resulted in the release of Celestial Vibration (now regarded as a classic), but not many people noticed and the label soon folded. Thankfully, Laraaji met another motivated fan soon after (Brian Eno) and the two eventually collaborated on 1980's Ambient 3 (Day Of Radiance). I am tempted to say that the rest is history, but Laraaji's work only started getting regularly anthologized and reissued in the last decade.

Given the volume of material and the sprawling, improvisatory nature of the performances (each piece spans an entire side of vinyl), Segue To Infinity defies any easy generalizations, but Celestial Vibration's "Bethlehem" provides the best condensed tour of the Laraaji aesthetic that one could reasonably expect. The heart of Laraaji's "Celestial Vibration" vision, of course, are the dreamily shimmering waves that radiate outward from his chord sweeps. In fact, I half-expected that this collection would mostly be four hours of that (which would have been fine). Instead, however, those admittedly gorgeous New Age/ambient passages are regularly interspersed with forays into wilder, more avant-garde territory. In just "Bethlehem" alone, for example, there is a section that sounds like John Cage violently attacking a prepared piano's innards (as well as another interlude that feels like Steve Reich on a tropical vacation). Elsewhere, there are passages that almost feel like free jazz, some kind of Ellen Fullman creation, wind chimes, water dripping onto a pan, or a psychotropic jaw harp hoedown (the final minutes of "Pervading"). The one consistent theme seems to be that nearly every sound that Laraaji produces feels resonant or visceral in all the right ways. Beyond that, the other big revelation is the strength of the six previously unheard pieces. In fact, I suspect Celestial Vibration would still be considered a classic even if it had been replaced in its entirety with any of the other pieces here (none were intended for release, by the way, as studio banter is included). Hell, Celestial Vibration might even have become more of a classic if "Koto" or any of the "Kalimba" pieces had made the cut. This feels like it could have been a goddamn greatest hits retrospective. And maybe it is, albeit only accidentally. Given that this is a characteristically lavish Numero Group set with all the usual accouterments (photos, insightful liner notes, etc.), I expect every serious Laraaji fan is already snapping up the vinyl, but the digital version would probably be an excellent entry point for the curious. While I already enjoyed Laraaji beforehand and recognized him as the most unique and fascinating figure to emerge from the New Age underground, I definitely needed Segue To Infinity to show me that I was still not appreciating him nearly enough.

Listen here.