Friday, 1 January 2010

If you find Earth boring


It would be quite easy to write a million words about Sun Ra, but I won’t inflict that on you just yet.

Sun Ra is simply one of the most extraordinary musicians and artists of the twentieth century, and his thousands of individual recordings show a unique and uniquely focused individual at work, obsessively working and reworking themes and developing his own esoteric philosophy over the course of his sixty years as a musician. Often dismissed as a crackpot because of his insistence that he came from Saturn, not Alabama, Sun Ra left this planet in 1993, but bequeathed the Earth an incredible legacy of around 200 albums that tell the history of jazz from Dixieland to the avant garde, sometimes on the same record.

Sun Ra’s first LP was released in 1956, although he had been performing since the mid 1930’s. On these early recordings, Ra combined be-bop and modal music with exotica to create a hybrid he called cosmic jazz, and gave his compositions and albums evocative names that conjure up a sort of Flash Gordon modernity, a vision of the space age filtered through sci fi films and the emergence of flying saucers as the paranoid sensation of the Cold War. His work of this period is usually fairly restrained (although never conventional), but there are hints of the experimentation to come in a number of his compositions, for example 'Interplanetary Music' from the 1960 LP 'We Travel The Spaceways' which blends quirky ethnic percussion and chanting to great and slightly sinister effect.

By the mid 1960’s, Sun Ra and his Arkestra (an ever-changing group of up to 30 multi-instrumentalists) were moving towards Free Jazz, and Ra was becoming keener to stress the links between his music and his philosophy (or ‘equation’ as he would have it): an occasionally bewildering mix of religion, ufo-ology, black power, Freemasonry, Gnosticism and gnomic wordplay. Sun Ra’s recordings during this phase are often out there at the farthest reaches of music, but are always saved from being formless and cacophonous by the Arkestra’s innate musical qualities, and by the guiding intelligence of their enigmatic leader. As a fairly mild example, here is 'Voice Of Space' from the 1967 LP 'Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy' which features some interesting noises and tape effects.

From the 1970’s onwards, Ra achieved a sort of contradictory equilibrium as a popular outsider artist, playing all over the world and recording for a variety of labels as well as his own Saturn imprint. Similarly, he was musically able to have his space cake and eat it too, switching between playing fairly straight jazz standards and experimenting with new instruments and technologies (to sometimes ear splitting effect) as he pleased. Somewhere inbetween is 'Where Pathways Meet' taken from the 1978 album 'Lanquidity', the nearest Sun Ra ever got to disco. The result is not perhaps representative of most of his work, but it is undeniably him!

Ra and his group kept on ploughing their unique furrow until Ra became too ill to carry on and went to live with his sister, dying soon after at the age of 79. The Arkestra, however, continues to this day and, I hope, will travel the spaceways for many years to come. Happy New Year!

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