Sun Ra was one of jazz history’s great outsiders. Although he single-mindedly led variously named Arkestras continuously from the mid-1950s until his bodily form passed on in 1993, his more than 200 recordings and scores of singles were never widely distributed during his career. Ignored by the dominant commercial interests that shaped the careers of many of his peers, Sun Ra and his Arkestra nevertheless focused on a quest to find new musical idioms, new sounds and new ways of playing and performing, which for him were new and unique ways of communicating.
To redress the lack of exposure Sun Ra’s work received during his time on Earth, Evidence Music has recently added five new titles to its ambitious program to release much of Ra’s recorded work. With Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel we get a collection of bite-sized recordings made between 1956 and 1973, representing 16 individual albums and two singles (all currently available through Evidence!). We can also now hear 1963’s When Angels Speak of Love, along with the rare to non-existent Pathway’s to Unknown Worlds/Friendly Love and Cymbals/Crystal Spears, all from 1973, plus the pleasure of 1978’s Lanquidity.
Sun Ra was born Herman “Sonny” Blount (pronounced Blunt) in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, and died there in 1993 after spending many years living and playing in Chicago, New York and, finally, Philadelphia. Though his birthplace would become ground zero for the US civil rights movement, Sun Ra transformed through music and his own very personal spiritual quest the racism that he grew up with and endured throughout his life. As both a black and an intellectual, Sun Ra found himself an outsider in both his own community and in white society. In an effort to find out who he was and where his people came from, Sun Ra drew on a reading of history that cast the startlingly advanced civilization of ancient Egypt as the cultural foundation of the blacks who were enslaved in the US. He combined this reading of history with a mystical futurism that optimistically embraced the promise of outer space, space travel and the existence of beings from other planets. By insisting that the past was something that American blacks could be inspired by and proud of, and that the future offers hope and promise to those who are open to it, he sought to transcend racism. It was by way of the music, leading bands who were open to understanding their nobility and their promise, who were open to exploring new approaches to music making, that Sun Ra sought to lift himself, his people and thus all of humanity.
A linguistic hint to Ra’s vision is found in his choice of the name “Arkestra.” “Arkestra” is not only a play on the word “orchestra,” but is bookended by “ra”—Ra being Egyptian sun-god—while “kest” refers to the Sanskrit word “kist,” which translates as “the sun’s gleam”. And gleam they did for more than forty years. Composer/saxophonist Anthony Braxton, someone who also created a lexicon for improvisation and has become a pre-eminent scribe among latter period jazz high priests, verifies Sun Ra’s regal position in music history in a quote from John Corbett’s Extended Play. There Braxton says, “I view the work of Sun Ra as essential, as an essential component that must be experienced as part of moving into the constructs of the next thousand years.”
Sun Ra’s insistence on interplanetary citizenship and traveling the spaceways via ancient Egypt, identifies an important and crucial motif in his approach to making music that was not of the Earth, that was not bounded by geography, history nor the particular social context of the day. Sun Ra understood that his own social context was unambiguously dominated by white power, though certainly not to the exclusion of black culture, but as a culture that was regarded only as a source of products to be controlled, owned or otherwise profited from. It was Sun Ra’s steadfast unwillingness to be owned and controlled by anyone that led he and his friend and fellow seeker of spiritual enlightenment Alton Abraham to form Saturn Records in 1956. They wanted to make music that was truly spiritual, that lifted people. Of course there is nothing higher than space, so that is where they aimed. (Alton Abraham died this past June at 66 years of age. These releases are dedicated to his memory.)
Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel
Spanning seventeen years, Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel begins in 1956 with tightly orchestrated compositions like “Saturn”—which saxophonist and lifetime Arkestra member John Gilmore credits to drawing his attention to Sun Ra in the fifties—“Kingdom of Not” and “Medicine for a Nightmare.” The collection winds through a menacing vocal version of Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” from 1958, and a decidedly off-kilter “I Loves You, Porgy” from 1960, both the sort of well-known numbers that Sun Ra liked to include amongst his more radically experimental pieces. The music continues to push onward and upward with pieces like “Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus” (1960) and “We Travel the Spaceways” released in 1962, music that coincides with and reflects the musical and cultural revolution of the times. At that time African American artists—think of people as diverse as Cecil Taylor, Max Roach and Ornette Coleman—seemed to draw inspiration from the accelerating civil rights movement, and as a result became ever more bold about making music that fit their own unique cultural visions. In fact, this Sun Ra collection does a great job at exposing the deliberate and subsequently historic decision the band leader made to reject any conventional approaches and, quite literally, take off. By the middle of the disc and 1963’s “When Angel’s Speak of Love” listeners are suddenly transported to a musical place also being explored by innovators like Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. Speaking volumes about the pivotal role that Sun Ra and his groups had in the development of jazz is the story of Coltrane running up to the bandstand after a particularly spirited Gilmore solo shouting, “You’ve got the concept, you’ve got the concept.”
Much of music included on this package consists of shorter numbers that show Sun Ra and his music in a favorably distilled form. For instance, the slightly more that three minute piece “We Travel the Spaceways,” encapsulates much of the Arkestra’s approach to vocals. A groovy chant about travelling the spaceways, Sun Ra’s vocal excercises foreshadow both the Arkestra’s monumental “Space is the Place,” and the extended explorations of Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders (think of the incantation of “A love supreme…” on A Love Supreme or Sanders’ assurance that “the Creator has a master plan”).
In terms of the group’s exploration of new ways to express themselves musically, we can site “Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus.” The tune features a lengthy bass passage where what sounds like a young Ronnie Boykins plays in the upper stratosphere while bouncing the bow to strum a kind of reference tonic. The passage is interrupted by Sun Ra’s atonal exploration the length of the piano’s keyboard hitting home a consistent theme in his musical interests here. He and his Arkestra delve into stretching the realms of possibility in the playing of their instruments arriving at a very specific dynamic expression since unmatched.
When Angels Speak of Love
Originally recorded in New York in 1963 and in 1966 on Saturn Records, When Angels Speak of Love shows the Arkestra (called here the Myth Science Arkestra) rejecting naturalist recording techniques (add some echo but don’t make it obvious) and manipulating their equipment to create overt echo effects or “dub” sounds before the word was even part of the slang vernacular. Such an approach underscores both the singularity of the band and the substantial historical relevance to these recordings. A truly staggering contribution to the progress of African American improvisation, the record opens with the abstract “Celestial Fantasy,” featuring Marshall Allen on oboe making sounds like one could hear from any of today’s most experimental performers. Like a big bang of innovation, “The Idea of it All” features a more traditional arrangement that brings to mind Coltrane’s early Impulse! period. On the track Gilmore, trumpeter Walter Miller and Sun Ra exchange blows like dancers at a Masai mating ritual. Unquestionably a crucial recording for students of modern jazz, the restoration of the rudely recorded document is top notch. Like a missing link in musicology this recording will clarify the community that Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and Anthony Braxton emerged from.
The next four albums (released as two combined packages) were part of an early 1970s distribution deal with Impulse!/ABC. While some albums were briefly released, including Pathways to Unknown Worlds, the deal quickly fell through. In retrospect one can imagine how squeamish the executives at Impulse! might have been after hearing these albums. Though some of this material was listed in the Saturn catalogues, only parts of Cymbals ever actually saw the light of day through, and that all the Impulse! release masters eventually went back to Alton Abraham and were never heard from again—until now.
Pathways to Unknown Worlds & Friendly Love
Pathways to Unknown Worlds opens with the title track, an orgy of percussion, trumpet, and assorted winds, heavy on the low end with oboe, bass clarinet and baritone saxophone. Included here are Ra’s most prolific working ensemble Gilmore, the wonderful Marshall Allen, bassist Ronnie Boykins, baritone saxophonist Danny Thompson, trumpeter Kwami Hadi, drummers Harry Richards and/or Clifford Jarvis and Sun Ra’s apparent sonic assistant Akh Tal Ebah on mellophones and percussion. Gilmore and Allen squeal and skronk like masters of a secret language. One is reminded of how often they would open concerts by assaulting each other and the audience with their howling instruments dressed only in bed sheets with the look of African warriors on a warpath. Pathways works it self into uncharted territory and never really strays from an opened come-what-may approach. Yet of the two albums, this one seems to have a more deliberate and digestible approach.
Friendly Love is a stark exploration accented by Sun Ra’s whispering organ and Moog experimentations. The desolate tone found here is indicative of the two track recording approach. Some of the sounds can be heard off in the distance while others, like the congas and certain saxophone and horns can be heard right up front. Akh Tal Ebah explodes his space mellophone and plays flugelhorn on three pieces here. Conga player Akatune, who also plays on both releases, figures prominently throughout this recording. The twelve minute closing track is the closest to reaching unification as Gilmour seems intent at establishing a structure from the outset, yet the piece invariably meanders and drifts off never ending.
Cymbals/Crystal Spears: The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums
These two recordings, recorded in four-track quadraphonic, remind us that however much the Arkestra was Sun Ra’s show, this was a group that very much relied on individually skilled players. While the most obvious is sax giant John Gilmore, who is nearly as synonymous with the Arkestra as Sun Ra, on this release we are made aware of the talents of Akh Tal Ebah’s phenomenal abilities on trumpet. Freedom becomes the central impetus here. As usual, the free flow of thought and interplay finds tenor man Gilmore and alto man Marshall Allen at the nexus of the tempest, while Ebah circles very closely.
Sun Ra’s interest in the lounge music of the likes of Les Baxter comes through on the lead track on Cymbals. “The World of the Invisible” sounds as if behind every cocktail party is another, very slow and abstract cocktail party happening (featuring no actual drinking though, Sun Ra would NOT approve). By now Sun Ra’s reputation as the most innovative bandleader on the planet was preceding him and the band was playing at it’s best and most free. A whole new generation of improvisers, from Evan Parker to Ken Vandermark and Derek Bailey to Gerry Hemingway, owe a debt to these recordings. Sun Ra’s organ and Moog explorations are everything you expect from an extra-terrestrial. His playing mesmerizes in these restored recordings, giving a sense of the sonic direction and style that spurs on and inspires his group of nine plus players. Straight up romps like “Thoughts Under a Dark Blue Light” and the “The Order of the Pharaonic Jesters” serve up talents often hidden to an overwhelmed or faint-hearted listener.
The opening of Crystal Spears, however, brings you back to planet Saturn as Sun Ra and his co-conspirators assault the listener with interplanetary expression. “Crystal Spears” opens like a disjointed elixir or palate cleanser of space keyboard, a popular musical trope for Sun Ra and his Cosmic Interplanetary Arkestra. The texture quickly moves the listener into the sounds of purposeful trepidation; sounds that tend more towards “becoming” than arriving, towards searching and exploring more than finding. Dominated by Sun Ra’s keyboard experiments, Crystal Spears sharpens the ear with truly inspired explorations. Disjointed as some of this music may be, these works clearly reflect genius.
Overall, this is a wonderful coupling of two period recordings. Despite the fact that Cymbals and Crystal Spears are strikingly dissimilar in approach, they are equal in substantive quality. And lastly, it should be noted that Gilmore puts in awesome performances throughout, proving him to be among the most unrecognized masters of saxophone improvisation.
Lanquidity is by far the most listener friendly of this group of re-releases. The title track is a long groovy number that features the saxes playing with and driving the rhythm, while Sun Ra’s keyboard and piano playing continually offsets and complicates the groove. This 1978 gem has an uncharacteristic jazz-rock fusion undertone, but successfully steers clear of overstating the point by latching on to a funky groove reminiscent of the kind of post-bop that eventually inspired the nineties acid jazz trend (listen to Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest for the specific citation). On this point it should also be noted that this is one of the rare Arkestra releases to feature guitar.
This relaxing exploration, which still manages to include the quietly disquieting June Tyson mantra “There are other worlds…,” doesn’t stray to far from a consistently groovy theme. Very palatable yet adventurous enough for the veteran, Lanquidity serves as an excellent primer for Sun Ra’s more mainstream compositions. It also brings his work further relevance since 1978 was the peak in a frighteningly bad period in so called modern jazz. It was a time when artists seemed to impress with technical prowess and studio wizardry at the expense of, and subsequent marginalization of, genuine musical creativity. It was a trend that Sun Ra and his Arkestra were obviously having no part of.