The Sun Ra Guide

Magic cities and other planes of there, all disguised as jazz

It's as if Sun Ra planned the hopelessness of the task from the beginning. Pick the best of what might be an infinite number of recordings? Nobody has them all or knows how many exist. Find the recording dates of music made by people for whom time meant nothing, who often mixed together recordings from different years? Even the album titles are dicey, sometimes with a word or two wrong, or with the same title used on more than one recording, or with no title given at all. Sometimes there was no cover. It's all part of the Sun Ra mystique and also, incidentally, the force that drives all collecting: not just that you want to own them all, but that you'll never be sure if you have them all.


Jazz in Silhouette
[1958, Evidence]

Sun Ra: No earthly birthplace
photo: Jack Vartoogian/Front Row Photos
Sun Ra: No earthly birthplace

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    The wondrous thing about Sun Ra was always that you could never tell who his space circus was going to offend. By making jazz seem strange he turned it into art at a time when most thought it was a fashion accessory. His cross-dressing avant-gardism could expose the real cool jazz guys as closet high modernists, yet at the same time appeal to moldy-fig fascists like Philip Larkin. But this is his one album that everyone agreed was real jazz. It introduced "Enlightenment," the first of the Chicago-based Arkestra's "space marches," during which the whole band of Space Egyptians paraded around the room singing. The deeply tinted ambient exercises like "Ancient Aeithopia" are here, exotica that lead back to Duke Ellington's "Pyramid" or "Menelik." But lest you be too hip, Sun Ra would have the last word: "This is the sound of silhouettes, images and forecasts of tomorrow disguised as jazz."


    Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy
    [1963 (1 967) , Evidence]

    Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow
    [1961 (1965) , Evidence]

    Once the Arkestra moved to New York City, it was a few years before Sun Ra could find work. In the interim he grew more experimental, and no two albums ever sounded the same. These collections document that period: small-group studies of the lower-toned instruments, chamber works with no rhythm section, rave-ups of nothing but rhythm, and organ-based jams recorded in a Brooklyn bar.


    Other Planes of There
    [1964 (1 966) , Evidence]

    After he'd lived on the Lower East Side for a while, Sun Ra's methods changed again. The title piece is a major work: At 22 minutes it took up a whole LP side, one of the longest titles recorded by a jazz group at the time. Soloists rise up, then suddenly disappear; they threaten to become rhythmically conventional, but never surrender to the temptation, as the drums play texturally, even melodically. Sun Ra's keyboards weave through it all, linking the parts together, and at the end they merge.


    The Magic City [1965 (1966) , Evidence]

    The title and the cover art, a Sun Ra drawing, refer to Birmingham, Alabama, the earthly birthplace he steadfastly denied, and in the recording he reimagines the city without its grim, racist, smoke-choked past. By simply pointing to musicians when he wanted them to play, he proved it possible to collectively improvise an entire album on the strength of nothing more than a shared belief.


    Strange Strings
    [1967, Saturn Research]

    Searching curio shops, Sun Ra assem- bled a collection of stringed instruments, everything from ukuleles to kotos. He thought there was a way in which strings could reach people differently from the usual brass and reeds. True, the Arkestra didn't know how to play them, but that guaranteed a certain purity. "A study in ignorance," he called it. Add in some homemade instruments, a large sheet of tempered metal hung from the ceiling, a vocalist singing through the wrong end of a ram's horn, no written music or rehearsal, and the results are astonishing. Recorded in the red, with off-and-on echo, the music is all texture. To say that they were out of tune misses the point—there was no tune, and they wouldn't have known how to tune these instruments if there had been. This may be the most successfully improvised group performance in the history of music.


    Atlantis
    [1967 (1969) , Evidence]

    The title song is a 21-minute epic recorded in Nigerian drummer Olatunji's cultural center on 125th Street (where John Coltrane also recorded some of his most demanding works). Beginning with ominous sonar beeps from the depths, Sun Ra plays Gibson organ and Clavioline, rolling his hands on the keys, making space chords with his forearms, windmilling the keyboard by spinning around and around. Soon Atlantis goes under, sonically. It's Sun Ra's Toccata and Fugue.


    Solo Piano Recital: Teatro la Fenice, Venezia
    [1977 (2003 ), Golden Years of New Jazz]

    In this rare solo piano concert, Ra ambles from the cocktail lounge to outer space. And vice versa. The introduction to "Penthouse Serenade" outdoes Cecil Taylor for sheer bombastic pianistics, then drifts into a gentle Monkish stride. Sun Ra isn't actually named in John Berendt's The City of Falling Angels as a suspect in the arson that burned down the opera house, but this CD is Exhibit A. Simply outrageous.


    Lanquidity
    [1978 (1978) , Evidence]

    Languid, to be sure. In the year of Abba's "Dancing Queen" and KC & the Sunshine Band's "I'm Your Boogie Man," Sun Ra woke up to disco, began playing a Fender Rhodes, ran the guitars through processors, and made a proper multitracked recording. On "There Are Other Worlds" the vocals are whispered through shifting layers of sound that suggest a dream state; the dance beat underneath it all offers a false sense of security, for the music has nothing to do with periodicity, much less grooving. When the beat finally drops away, the band winds down like a music box.


    Mayan Temples
    [1990 (1992) , Black Saint]

    Sun Ra revisits the pop tunes and exotica of his youth 40 years later, and the ironic results constitute a well-recorded studio representation of the band's club and concert performances that tops any of those he recorded live.


    The Singles
    [1954– 1982 (1996 ), Evidence]

    Singles? Boy howdy! No matter what they say, Sun Ra was no obscurantist, and this 20-year collection of incredibly rare doowop, r&b, blues, and outer-space recordings that he aimed at jukebox play are the proof. You may never listen to these two CDs a second time, but you'll never be the same, either.


    Dud: Second Star to the Right: Salute to Walt Disney
    [1989 (1995 ), Leo]

    Invited to record "Pink Elephants on Parade" for a Disney tribute album called Stay Awake, Ra took the assign- ment seriously, bought a video of Dumbo (who he said he could relate to), and dove into the whole Disney songbook. Like the Ellington, Gershwin, and Fletcher Henderson he had previously explored, Disney's music was part of what he called his "shield of beauty" against the forces that would destroy earth. Maybe, but this live recording is heavy with what one could charitably call broad humor. With all that falsetto and basso profundo, the songs wear mouse ears, for sure. Only the cautionary lyrics of "The Forest of No Return" from Babes in Toyland seem worthy of Sun Ra's attention.

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