In his famous essay “Kafka and his Precursors,” Jorge Luis Borges argues that Zeno, Han Yu, and Kierkegaard, though nothing alike, all now seem Kafkaesque. “Every writer creates his own precursors,” Borges concludes. “His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.” Cool. Now reverse your terms and you have Sun Ra, whose 40 years of recordings with the Arkestra encompass proto-free jazz, big band bebop, swing homage, and musique concrète bordering on trip-hop. It’s not that, as you listen through the still unfolding catalog of a relentless experimenter, things worlds apart start to feel Raesque. It’s that Ra feels so worldesque: as all that he touched on passes through your ears, every precursor and follower seems to have created him.
John Szwed’s biography, Space Is the Place, heroically tries to place the man, ranging from the Russian composer Scriabin’s “mystic chords” to exotica’s Les Baxter and Earth, Wind & Fire, whose Maurice White studied with Ra trumpeter Phil Cohran. Ra’s astral philosophy demands contexts like theosophy, the Nation of Islam, and Egyptology. Then there’s tech: Ra bought tape recorders, electric keyboards, and synths as they were available, utilizing their imperfections and reverb like a dub producer. In a similar vein, critic John Corbett linked Lee Perry, George Clinton, and Ra: all “Brothers From Another Planet.” Now, Corbett’s fellow Chicago jazz ringleader, multi-reedsman Ken Vandermark, working in a trio with drummer Hamid Drake and bassist Nate McBride, has released Spaceways Incorporated: Thirteen Cosmic Standards by Sun Ra & Funkadelic (Atavistic).
If Vandermark is approaching Ra and Clinton as repertoire—Wyntonizing Weird, call it—most of us who by date of birth hear jazz backwards, like a box set played finish to start, appreciate the former Sonny Blount for the blur he created around himself. To use Irwin Chusid’s term for folks like Captain Beefheart and the Shaggs (who opened alongside the Arkestra at an NRBQ anniversary show not that far back), Ra was an outsider artist, bordering on madness, fending off accusations of incompetence, indebted to no movement save what followers he could grab for himself. Against postmodernism, where any notion of avant-garde breakthroughs seems trite and musicians switch genres on John Zorn’s cue, the outsider artist still retains an aura. Obsessions dictate unruly formal choices permanently unavailable for questioning. Obsessives are hipster’s hipsters, as far back as Baudelaire translating Edgar Allan Poe. Sun Ra ranks with the greatest.
The latest batch of Evidence reissues include a surprise: a Greatest Hits record culled from the label’s 21 Ra releases, no track longer than about seven minutes, with plenty of fan-pleasing space chants and clearly themed live staples. The thrust is to present the Ra who, with little mainstream support, led a big band for as long as Ellington, his mentor in orientalism, knew straight jazz inside out, and deployed talented players like John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, Clifford Jarvis, and Ronnie Boykins. Which might be true, but put on “Pathways to Unknown Worlds,” the title track to a disc of two 1973 recordings that might be the least of these reissues, and all pretensions to clarity are laughed aside. Are they tuning up or performing? Oboe leading a bottom-feeder brigade; weaves of distorted horn and drum flurries; mini-Moog seeping in sleep dust; upright bass plunked into a big Ra windup from the start of a Merrie Melodies cartoon. The strong sense, after minutes, that they’ve been playing for hours.
Ra knew wooze better than blues, spazz better than jazz; he punned verbally with sound as an organizing principle, told weaker musicians to play the same thing over and over because something good would come of it. His agoraphilic embrace of incoherence was one of his superior qualities. Yet he always balanced the protoplasmic soundscapes of his inner soundtrack with palatable alternatives: I’d include not just his ’50s bop palette, but a lot of his “free” passages, because I suspect that Ra was one of the first to realize that overblown skronk was becoming equally essential to the median jazz fan—he felt the Knitting Factory coming. Whether falsetto or pretty, the horns, anchored by Gilmore and Allen, his most capable and long-lasting lieutenants, are Ra’s most conservative element. It’s the phased-off and almost always multiple beats, those daubed and treated keyboards, the panoply of lower-register sounds, that ensure the center does not hold.
There’s no defining album in Ra’s enormous catalog: he changed as the times loosened and new technology arrived; many of his best pieces, like “The Magic City,” stretch upwards of 20 minutes. But 1963, when the great Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy and the newly reissued When Angels Speak of Love were being set down, saw the Arkestra at its finest, with ’60s rebellion far from calcified and Ra indulging his fantasies through basic effects like gongs and an early electric keyboard called the clavioline. He pounds his pianoforte against Jarvis’s drums in “The Idea of It All,” then sets Angels‘s title ballad to gentle clomps. Ten years later, when Cymbals and Crystal Spears were recorded, Ra had new gear like the Rocksichord (whose rediscovery prompted indie rocker Sam Coomes to start Quasi). Cymbals, my fave of the new Evidence cache, is limber soul jazz balancing tune and languor; “Crystal Spears” a feral synth freakout. Lanquidity, a 1978 album, is as electric Miles as Ra got, with guitars, thick keyboard textures, and droning reeds; June Tyson insists, “There are other worlds they have not told you of.” Too bad some skewed notion of disco or rock kept the rhythms hemmed in.
Once I rode a téléphérique up Mont Blanc, and after 15,000 feet a perfectly beautiful green mountain landscape turned into something bleak and otherworldly that could not be detected from below. Sun Ra’s music is impressive even when it doesn’t reach such heights, and in a way he only ascends to where he does by sacrificing much of what ordinarily keeps jazz lush and vital: a clear pulse, interplay between relative equals, readily apparent tonal signatures. Yet what, ultimately, were Ra’s “pivoting planes of sound” if not sampling, and retrofusions, and pop globalization, the jazz of semiotic juggling? As jazz became rock became hip-hop became a Napster-sponsored cybernetic archive, the isolated gambit behind his music, its reckless attempt to encompass future and past, became the paradigmatic stance of the contemporary musician. Ra may not have traveled the spaceways—but he will.
Long Live Serendipity by Gary Giddins