Where To Start: The Cosmic Genius Of Sun Ra
In the pantheon of musical trailblazers, Sun Ra is a shooting star; with his huge ‘band’, the multi, multi instrumental Arkestra in tow, he bursts miles ahead of anyone else in terms of chronology, mythology, and straight up otherworldliness.
Born in 1914, it was as early as the opening years of the 50s that he abandoned his birth name to become the almighty Sun Ra, following a so-called ‘trip to Saturn’. A demigod among men. Sun Ra was telling the world he had been sent from Saturn whilst David Bowie was in nappies, and adopted an infinitely inspiring afro-futurist perspective with his art that continues to cosmically amaze to this day.
With a musical career which spans from his 1956 debut ‘Jazz By Sun Ra’ right up til his final 1990 album ‘Mayan Temples’ (his death of course spawned hundreds of posthumous releases), Sun Ra and his Arkestra are today recognised as an institution, one of music history’s greatest and most prolific juggernauts.
Whilst they created soundscapes that sounded like the world was ending, or just beginning, the focal point of Sun Ra’s art has never been this world. The fascination with space is key, track and album titles that offer a glimpse into the cosmic genius of Sun Ra’s mind dominate, with almost every astrological body and phenomena mentioned throughout his discography.
The vastness of his music, and the sonic ambition do whatever they felt, means that the extraterrestrial brilliance is far from just limited to the song titles. Playing venues of all shapes and sizes their whole career, the Arkestra made their name for their live shows. They played a ridiculous amount of shows their whole career, but despite the records being contemporaneously secondary, the musical legacy contained within them makes it obvious why Sun Ra is so influential to everyone from Pink Floyd to Zappa, Funkadelic to Beefheart, and Kraftwerk to The Stooges.
At the time, the group recorded their albums on extremely limited amounts of vinyl, which were then hand painted and sold at shows (you can imagine just how much those copies are worth now). Of course, they were incredibly sought after records in the 70s and 80s, but in the age of reissues, Spotify and YouTube, there’s an abundance of Sun Ra’s genius plastered across the internet.
A by-product of this, though, is that because the man released over a hundred of albums in his lifetime, was bootlegged countless times, and then saw more posthumous releases than you could ever get your head around, it can be difficult to know where to start.
Here are five of his best, most innovative, and most heavenly records you can hear today.
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‘The Magic City’
Recorded in 1965 at the birth of psychedelia, this album combines their cosmic jazz with tape loop experiments. A meditation on Sun Ra’s alleged birthplace – we say alleged, as he denied his whole life that he came from anywhere other than Saturn – ‘The Magic City’ can be seen as the Arkestra’s most sonically ambitious work.
The centrepiece is the title track, the first movement of this record. Emerging from a claustrophobic soundscape created by the aforementioned experiments, Sun Ra uses a primitive analogue synthesiser (a clavioline) to create brooding landscapes.
Whilst Ra is notorious for his amazing control of dynamics, here they are at their most extreme; the track’s climax sees frenzied brass squeals explode from the gloaming dogma of the clavioline motifs in a cathartic firestorm of white noise. Definitely not the Arkestra’s most accessible moment, but quite possibly their most innovative and dark, as it sees Ra at his most in touch with the void.
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Recorded in 1967 and then completed in 1969, Atlantis is among the Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s mightiest moments. The amount of ground covered on the duration of his long player is staggering, from the short off kilter compositions at the start, to the free form epic at the end, the diversity is nothing short of brilliant.
‘Yucutan II’ is the track that best showcases what Ra called the ‘Solar Sound Instrument’, essentially a Hohner Clavinet that he’d got his mitts on before anyone else, an instrument which gives the record its defining sound, allowing funk grooves to embed themselves amongst the Arkestra’s experimentalism.
As with most Arkestra records of this time, or in fact any period, the side-long piece that gives the record its name is perhaps the greatest part of the album. Extreme organ sounds, from Ra’s ‘Solar Sound Organ’ dominate the claustrophobic soundscapes, whilst a much larger arrangement than on the rest of the record forces the music on a winding path through worlds far from our own.
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‘Space Is The Place’
Taking its name from the Sun Ra film of the following year, 1973’s ‘Space Is The Place’ is perhaps the go to starter record for anyone wishing to get into Sun Ra.
But don’t see that as a synonym for his most ‘tame’ or his ‘easiest’ to get first time. For a start, the seven minute freakout on Side 2, ‘Sea Of Sound’ is some of the most furious, obnoxious and confrontational free jazz you’ll ever hear. On this track, the twin alto saxes of Danny Davis and Marshall Allen sound like the dying shrieks of a hunted animal undergo power surges so hard that for periods it feels like they scare the other instrumentation off.
But despite the furious nature of some of the record, the song ‘Space Is The Place’ is the most archetypical Sun Ra song. Squabbling alto brass does dominate a lot of the soundscape, but the constantly reassuring vocal utterances of ‘space is the place’ that are repeated for the whole of the 21 minute run time and Sun Ra’s ‘space organ’ mean that despite any dysphoric sounds, the piece as a whole feels like an intoxicating ascension to heaven.
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This is one of Sun Ra’s most conventional jazz records, stripped back from the crazy thoroughfare of Space Is The Place, it shows that the Arkestra were completely able to nail twinkling melodies and wilting yet grooving jazz compositions.
Marshall Allen and John Gilmore’s hit beautiful motifs that vary between the swelteringly intense ones at the end of ‘Twin Stars Of Tence’, to the joyous melodies of ‘Where Pathways Meet’. ‘That’s How I Feel’ puts Sun Ra himself in the shop window, not as an arranger this time, but simply as a virtuoso as each piano roll sparkles like the stars he spent his whole life staring at.
The closer ‘There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You Of)’ is another highlight, notable for its free-roaming melodies and swarming strings. Ra’s piano melodies wander and meander, on an astral closer to what is most probably the most complete and most down to Earth Sun Ra record in his catalogue.
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‘A Fireside Chat With Lucifer’
Recorded in 1982, ‘A Fireside Chat…’ is an album that has everything, an overlooked later career gem. Sun Ra’s 80s material is notable because there’s seemingly no decline in quality from whence he started; ‘Omniverse’ and ‘Mayan Temples’ as well, are stone cold classics and essentials in his back catalogue, yet this is perhaps the best of all.
First and foremost, the opening track ‘Nuclear War’ is perhaps the most instantly recognisable conventional song in the great visionary’s whole arsenal. A call and response protest song about the seemingly impending nuclear winter, it sees Sun Ra himself bellowing to his Arkestra, who in turn bellow back; it’s a soulful, powerful track, which lets loose the world view that imminent nuclear fallout is so terrifying even Sun Ra can’t escape it.
The second side of the record features a freakout that meanders through 21 minutes of runtime, giving the album it’s excellent title of ‘A Fireside Chat With Lucifer’. A showcase of his talents as an arranger, it combines soothing, beautiful sax tones with building, ebbing and flowing dynamics.
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Words: Cal Cashin
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Where To Start: The Cosmic Genius Of Sun Ra