This year would mark the 100th birthday for jazz legend Sun Ra. But, for a performer as prolific, ever-changing, and tough to pin down, how do you celebrate? How do you provide a retrospective on a career that felt so much more like a life, one that was messy, strange, and beautiful? The answer, it seems, is to let Sun Ra’s long-time collaborator and Arkestra member Marshall Allen put together a two-disc collection of Sun Ra’s performances with various incarnations of his Arkestra. The resulting compilation, In the Orbit of the Ra, smartly avoids trying to put a clear label on Sun Ra’s sound and legacy, and instead presents it in all its complicated glory.
Though the collection covers roughly 25 years of music, Allen avoids chronology here. He also avoids maybe the only two markers we’ve had to this point for Sun Ra: Chicago and New York. We tend to focus on these two cities when we talk about Sun Ra, so we can cover his early hard-bop Chicago years and his seemingly more exploratory work in New York post-1961. There’s also his ’70s work in Philadelphia, which we tend to tie to New York as being an extension of Ra’s inventive years. But these geographical markers, for the guy always traveling the spaceways, serve no purpose In the Orbit of Ra.
Despite moving these markers around, and jumping from year to year, this compilation has a remarkable cohesion. It starts with “Somewhere in Space”, a smooth and thumping number from Interstellar Low Ways, an album recorded in the early-’60s but not released until mid-decade. It’s a straightforward, sweet jazz side, with understated yet rumbling percussion and intricate bass scuffing up the smooth horns and lilting flute work. The next song, “Lady with Golden Stockings”, more than likely predates “Somewhere in Space” in terms of when it was recording, though it also didn’t appear until later on the excellent album, Nubians of Plutonia. It’s a similarly direct affair, though the drums have an otherworldly weight to them here, one that puts a distance between them and the careful phrasings of the saxophone.
What becomes clear in these early tracks is that Ra and his Arkestra (whether the Myth Science Arkestra or the Solar-Myth Arkestra) use space as much as they use sound. Those low ways, that Plutonia, these are spaces terraformed by every note and strike of a drum on these tracks. But there are skittering shifts and shadows to these songs that suggest the more complex and exploratory composition of 1971’s “Spontaneous Simplicity”, a song where the flutes seem to pull away from the song’s structure at every turn and the piano adds a percussive punch wherever the thick percussion leaves a hole.
We see the early uses of space expand to what would seem like their logical limit on later tracks included here. 1972’s “Astro Black” buzzes and hums along in all directions. Vocalist June Tyson is at its center, singing out sultry melodies, but the music works against her in fascinating ways. The quick bleats of horns, off-kilter percussion, distant howls and squeals, both upset and affirm Tyson as the calm center of the song. 1978 live track “Dance of the Cosmos Aliens” — one of a few excellent unreleased inclusions here — is one of the strangest but most energetic explorations in this set. It’s a song that focuses on rhythm and organ and manages to, at the same time, feel both cyclical and formless. The drums are steady if frenetic, but the organ both rolls through familiar phrasings and cuts its own paths through the song.
In the Orbit of Ra often confirms what we already know: Ra and his bands were experimental geniuses. But, in upsetting the chronology and cutting tracks from their original albums, we get to hear them in a fresh context. The trouble with career-spanning collections, especially in jazz, is that sides are often meant as part of the larger whole, as part of a particular album, and their power gets diminished outside of it. Marshall Allen, though, has pulled off a rare feat with this collection, showing us a version of Sun Ra that runs through all of these songs, that was there all along, but perhaps got swallowed up in all that spaceways mythology.
Nowhere is this clearer than on the heartbreaking live track “Trying to Put the Blame on Me”. It’s a solo track, just Sun Ra on piano and vocals, playing a simple, intimate song. “This world is strange, it’s a strange world to me,” he sings. “What does this mean?” And here, more clearly than perhaps anywhere else on In the Orbit of Ra, we see Sun Ra as a man confused by the world around him. By a man who both found a place for himself in the jazz community and, as a black man in America in the middle of the 20th century, was still an outsider. Sun Ra navigates a strange world by doing two things at once on these fantastic sides. He renders the world in all its strangeness, through wobbling sounds and eccentric compositions, but he also creates his own astral plane for he and his Arkestra to exist upon. It’s equal parts discomfort and self-discovery, and on In the Orbit of Ra Marshall Allen presents a portrait of Sun Ra every bit as complicated and strange as a cross-section of his reality could possibly be. When it comes to Sun Ra, there is no starting point, and this two-disc set is not a place to start: it’s another corner of his world to explore, and one well worth getting lost in.