Features I by I 25.05.12

Sun Ra’s musical universe in 10 essential records

Avant-garde visionary Sun Ra released over a hundred albums across his career, much of it based in his own cosmic philosophy and afro-futurist thought. Mr Beatnick walks us through his music and mythology in 10 essential records.

Poet, philosopher, band leader, jazz pianist, composer, writer, mythologist – Sun Ra produced a vast amount of art in his lifetime, such a large amount that narrowing it down to an essential digest is a truly challenging undertaking, with thousands of recordings out there.

His contribution to music history can be viewed from different angles – as a pioneer of noise and experimental synth music, an exponent of so-called free jazz, a big band leader who pushed the limits of group improvisation, or a cultural ambassador who fused disparate influences from around the world into his holistic, exotic sound.

The context of all of this is further complicated by his mission statement – Ra maintained til the end of his life on earth that he was born on Saturn, brought to our planet by a higher power to develop our knowledge and share universal truths from other worlds. If that sounds kooky now then imagine how it must have sounded in the early 1950s when he founded his first Space Trio, as told to an audience that hadn’t yet been gripped by UFO fever, early sci-fi or Neil Armstrong setting his first foot on the moon. Much of the critical narrative around Sun Ra ever since has portrayed him as a space-spouting nutter in a glittery sequined gown, entirely glossing over the rich diversity and complexity of his music in the process.

Ra is often cited as the founding father of afro-futurism, a tangent of thought which extends through the mothership connections of Parliament-Funkadelic, to the astral techno of Underground Resistance, to the aquatic, lardossian narratives of Drexciya; his work examines racial identity and the black experience in America through the eyes of an alien visiting humanity. The language of this deconstruction is peppered with his own neologisms, like the “astro-black” of outer space, the “myth-science” or “solar-myth” of creation, right down to the name he chose for his band, “the Arkestra”, a linguistic riff on Noah’s biblical safe haven.

A scholar of so-called “forbidden books”, and a lecturer at Boston in his later years, Ra fused influences from literature, antiquity, religion and popular culture together to form his aphoristic “equations” and vocal chants, such as “History is his story; my story is mystery!” and “you made a mistake, you did something wrong, now make another mistake, and do something right.”

Hopefully you’re starting to get the gist of how large this iceberg really is – following Sun Ra is a lifelong religion of sorts, with a truly endless universe of music to explore. Here are 10 records worth checking out, and if you want to go in further, get yourself a copy of John F Szwed’s excellent biography Space Is The Place, watch the legendary blaxploitation flick of the same name starring Ra as himself, and make the first preparations for your moonship journey. His music will take you to other worlds they have not told you of, that wish to speak to you.

Despite Sun Ra passing in the ‘90s, the Arkestra are still touring under the direction of Marshall Allen, and their annual performances at London’s Café Oto are the stuff of legend.

Sun Ra
The Singles
(Evidence 2xCD, 1996)

A 2CD set that spans 50 different songs, The Singles is the best collection of rare Sun Ra 45s available, and a valuable insight into his pre-Arkestra years, as well as the diversity of his output. It contains a few records by The Cosmic Rays, a doo-wop group which Ra was a founding member of, whose soulful vocal harmonies on ‘Daddy’s Gonna Tell You No Lie’ seem light-years away from the dissonant free-form sound of his better known works.

The real joys on here are the ballad ‘Love In Outer Space’ (above) and ‘Rocket Number 9’, both of which still feature in Arkestra performances today. You also get a handful of his novelty records for your trouble, like the comedic ‘I’m Gonna Unmask The Batman’, and The Qualities version of ‘Happy New Year To You’, which must have been the perfect soundtrack to drunken seasonal celebrations on Saturn. This is fun, accessible and also definitive, a “greatest hits” of sorts.

Sun Ra
The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. 1
(ESP Disk LP, 1965)

Heliocentric Worlds was released on mono ESP disk in 1965 and marks the point at which Sun Ra began to cross over into popular consciousness, whilst the critical debate over his work began to gather steam in the pages of Downbeat and the journals of the era. Here was jazz music in some sort of form – but not “free jazz” as Eric Dolphy had presented it – a structure remained, as if held together by unseen strings, performed by Martians with an unearthly sense of timing.

The Arkestra’s performance is fluid and harmonious; there are frenetic crescendos and mournful piccolo solos, and the sense that the band are tightly focussed on the performance, regimented yet utterly out of control. It was peculiar, baffling and exciting for listeners of the time, and came clothed in Ra’s own oddball design, artwork and poetry. This was the depth of his vision – as conductor, composer and director of the proceedings, he brings chaos and order into perfect balance on this record.

Sun Ra
(Philly Jazz LP, 1978)

Once described by Stones Throw’s Egon as “Sun Ra’s funkiest album”, there’s an unusual swing and groove to Lanquidity which is definitely unique in the canon. Lanquidity is also unusually stereophonic and produced with a bit more finesse and subtlety than his other albums; pizzicato guitar licks trickle away in the background, Rhodes melodies twinkle like stars in the night sky, and overall the band construct an intimate, delicate tapestry between their many members.

Maybe it was the local turf of Philly Jazz Records that helped that sense of union, as the band lived in a shared house in downtown Philadelphia for many years, a house that remains band leader Marshall Allen’s home today. Elsewhere on this record lies the remarkable ‘There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You Of)’, which plods along and stumbles over its own tail, Sun Ra and June Tyson exchanging sweet whispered nothings into the mind’s ear.

Sun Ra
(Cobra LP, 1976)

The late ‘60s brought with them a whole host of new gadgets for Ra to incorporate into his musical arsenal. An early disciple of the Moog synthesiser, and owner of Dr Robert Moog’s very first prototype, on this record he became temporarily obsessed with the RMI Rocksichord, which had a rich history in psychedelic rock and The Beach Boys, but had never found a place in jazz music before.

The swooshing plucked sounds of this quirky instrument adorn Cosmos from start to finish, particular the stand-out track ‘Moonship Journey’, which was often used as an introduction piece in Arkestra performances. “Prepare yourself for the moonship journey, the journey on the moonship,” sing the band, repeating their mantra until the audience begin to sway into a deep meditation.

Cosmos also contains the oft-sampled ‘Jazz From An Unknown Planet’, one of the richest and most tightly performed sessions the band ever committed to tape, perhaps thanks to the professional studio time offered to them by Cobra Records, France (many Sun Ra records were mono, single mic, one-take recordings laid down on a cheap reel-to-reel tape machine by a member of the band.)

Sun Ra Quartet
New Steps
(Horo LP, 1978)

The Arkestra was a huge ensemble, constantly gaining and losing members, living, touring and recording together under Ra’s guiding influence. They would listen as Ra taught lessons of ancient wisdom, they would follow his guidance on discipline, on meditation, and on music. Thus it’s fairly rare to find smaller group recordings of Sun Ra playing with a trio or quartet, and New Steps is the exception, recorded in Italy for the obscure Horo label.

The standout track here is Where There Is No Sun, which is built around Ra’s simple, evocative poetry, with soft piano chords and thick vocal harmonies that send shivers down the spine  – “the sky is a sea of darkness, where there is no sun to light the way / There is no day, there is only darkness, eternal sea of darkness.” By reducing the physical size of the group, the Arkestra seem more in touch with their own vision of outer space than ever before.

Elsewhere on this double album lurks a great version of ‘My Favourite Things’ and a funky groove called ‘Rome By Twilight’, but due to the size of the label and the number of copies pressed this is a tough record to track down.

Sun Ra
Sleeping Beauty
(Saturn LP, 1979)

A holy grail for Sun Ra collectors for decades after its release, Sleeping Beauty was spoken of in hushed tones and largely treated as a white elephant until Peter Dennett, Ra fanatic and owner of Art Yard Records, kindly reissued it in the early noughties. This is the pinnacle of ‘70s Sun Ra – vibraphones, Fender Rhodes and vocal harmonies merging in truly beautiful unison.

The critical moment of the title track comes six minutes in, when Ra begins to intone, “I want to speak of Black Beauty to you / Without Prince Charming, there’s nothing Black Beauty can do.” This was not the first time he re-imagined Disney (see also ‘Pink Elephants On Parade’) but it’s certainly the most thought-provoking, and a thorough examination of the Other – is Sleeping Beauty able to exist without Prince Charming, and were it not for him, would she not remain in eternal stasis? What if Sleeping Beauty were black?

Meanwhile the spiritual flipside ‘Door Of The Cosmos’ remains a massive favourite with DJs and has been filtered through the work of various producers over the years. Ultimately one of the most soulful Ra records you can get, and certainly the album best recommended to casual listeners who can’t handle the noisier end of the Ra spectrum.

Sun Ra
Disco 3000
(Saturn LP, 1978)

This might have been disco to Sun Ra’s ears, but as you’d expect it’s a far cry from Giorgio Moroder, sounding more like one of the first techno records ever made (for a bona fide Ra disco track, check out the dancefloor favourite ‘UFO’). Drum machines clatter in and out of the mix, drifting around the speakers, Crumar synthesisers clumsily intertwine with mute trumpets and haunting organ riffs, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, the band erupt into their signature theme ‘Space Is The Place’.

Side two has some truly mind-bending moments, such as ‘Dance Of The Cosmo-Aliens’, one of the most brutal and bizarre proto-techno songs they ever recorded. Not an easy album to get into, but a great example of the crazy, innovative experiments Ra frequently released on Saturn, his own private press label.

Many of the Saturn records were painted, assembled and decorated by Arkestra members whilst on tour, which also partly explains why the labels were so poorly stuck onto the vinyl, and why they command such high prices today.

The Sun Ra Arkestra
‘Nuclear War
(Y Records 12″, 1982)

Included here for the eternal relevance of the title track, thanks to numerous cover versions by bands like Yo La Tengo, lots of people now know the chanted lyrics to Nuclear War, even if they don’t know the man who penned them. “Talking about / Nuclear War / It’s A Motherf***er / Don’t You Know / If They Push That Button / Your Ass Gotta Go / You Can Kiss Your Ass / Goodbye.”

This song articulates perfectly why global conflict and weapons of mass destruction are so terrifying, whilst retaining an important sense of humour about a potentially deadly situation. After all, as the song points out, what are you actually gonna do, without your ass? Ra didn’t deal very much with earthly matters, but this enduringly popular protest song is the noteworthy exception to that rule.

Sadly the rest of the album is fairly tame, straight-ahead big band jazz, which is one of the unfortunate things about later Ra releases – he retreated into much more familiar, tried and tested territory in his twilight years, standards he had learned under the tutelage of his mentor Fletcher Henderson.

The Sun Ra Arkestra
The Sun Ra Arkestra Meets Salah Ragab in Egypt
(Praxis LP, 1983; Golden Year of Jazz CD, 1999, pictured)

It was unusual for the Arkestra to perform in tandem with another act – in the 60s they frequently played on the same bills as the MC5, who were enormous fans, but the two groups never actually merged or jammed together on stage. Even when Sun Ra and John Cage ended up sharing a performance, they went to great lengths to inform the audience they had taken turns, and thus not really performed together.

But the Arkestra’s trip to Egypt was a different affair, perhaps understandable given Ra’s obsession with the Pyramids, the Pharaohs and all things arcane and antiquated. There they combined with Salah Ragab’s Cairo Free Jazz Ensemble for a jaw-dropping performance that blended traditional Egyptian styles and scales with Ra’s exotic timbres, finding a truly astral musical country of the mind in the process.

This is a uniquely beautiful record that truly sounds like nothing else they recorded, the enactment of Ra’s wildest Egyptian fantasies.

Sun Ra
Space is the Place
(Blue Thumb, 1973)

Marvin had What’s Going On, Coltrane had A Love Supreme, and Ra had this – perhaps not the definitive or most compelling record he released, but certainly a piece which radiates his mission statement from the core. The title track exists in literally hundreds of versions, on numerous albums and live recordings, but the 21-minute long version here is certainly one of the best, whilst the album closes with ‘Rocket Number 9’, a chant-driven arkestra favourite of yore.

It also showcases the prime Arkestra line up at their peak, Marshall Allen and John Gilmore trading alto and tenor riffs, June Tyson leading a 4-strong chorus of “Space Ethnic Voices” that bring a gospel quality to the proceedings at times. This was as close as Ra ever came to a genuine pop moment, and ties in somewhat with the legendary Space Is The Place film, which is one of the most bizarre blaxploitation films in existence and well worth a watch (NB –none of the songs on this appear in the film, so for the “actual” soundtrack, get the Evidence 1993 reissue). It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?

Special thanks to Max Cole

Read next: The genius of Drexciya in 10 essential tracks



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