Ten essential Sun Ra albums
Here are 10 key recordings taken by Edwin Pouncey from Ra’s massive discography that continues to bring back new discoveries and musical treasures lost to this day.
Jazz in silhouette
El Saturn LP (1959) Phoenix Jazz CD
Recorded at El Saturn Studio, Chicago, this album is widely regarded as one of Sun Ra’s best works of his time there. Since hailed as a neglected masterpiece, Jazz in silhouette perfectly sums up how the Arkestra would stay true to the jazz tradition of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, but also look to the future of the music they had studied and mastered under Ra’s precise tutelage. Filled with its distinctive covers, depicting half-naked space sirens levitating above a lunar landscape, here’s some jazz that looked and sounded alien (but oddly familiar) to a late 1950s audience – but stranger sounds were yet to come.
Cosmic tones for mental therapy
El Saturn LP (1963) Evidence CD
Now Sun Ra’s music was entering areas of new discoveries that few jazz enthusiasts could easily integrate. Beyond even the wildest freeform excesses of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, Cosmic tones for mental therapy was psychedelic jazz music before the term entered the media’s wake. Armed with exotic instruments such as celestial-sounding drums and an astro space organ – as well as spatial echo processing through which most of the music has been channeled – Ra and his Arkestra explore the outer limits of the cosmic improvisation and come back with an album which (as its suggested title) invites the listener to discover his musical identity.
The magical city
El Saturn LP (1965) Evidence CD
Composed of four pieces of music with multidimensional sounds, The magical city is in part Sun Ra’s reflection on the city of Birmingham, Alabama, where he was born and raised. Few, however, could have foreseen the dramatic musical change Ra had in mind when composing this music, a series of sense-altering sound experiences that took his music to another level of creativity. Alongside the epic title track and shorter sound poems “Abstract Eye” and “Abstract” I “, the centerpiece here is” The Shadow World, “a frenzied fusion of avant-garde jazz and classical music. which always sounds totally unique.
El Saturn LP (1966) CD Atavique
Other studio experiments produced this amazing project. After asking the Arkestra to put down their horns, Ra then handed the players various stringed instruments, which they did not know how to play. Instead of the expected cacophony, however, wonderful and totally unexpected new music was discovered. The musical excellence of the Arkestras was such that they could naturally cross into unknown musical territory. Strange strings is a renowned Ra classic that has since been extended by the release of the Roaratorio label Other strange worlds, an album made up of newly discovered recordings of the Strange strings session.
El Saturn LP (1969) Evidence CD
In his backing notes for this record, Sun Ra warns his listeners that, “The past is dead, and those who follow the past are doomed to die and be like the past. Ra had no room for passengers as he took control of his latest space jazz adventure, and as the epic title makes clear, he also had no intention of changing his course. With Ra playing a Hohner Clavinet (or Solar Sound Instrument as he called it), the vibe here is filled with inventive twists that are swept away by a tsunami of dislocated rhythms, textures, and cage-free jazz patterns.
Concert for comet Kohoutek
ESP-Disk LP (1973)
Performed at New York City Hall on December 22, 1973, this live recording of the passage of Comet Kohoutek over planet Earth is a wild and varied celebration that is often overlooked. Taking off with a roaring version of “Astro Black”, the Arkestra slides into a long workout on “Discipline 27: Part 1”, completed by a rippling Moog solo from Mister Ra. “Unknown Kohoutek” is the true brain-burner of the set, however, with the Arkestra solemnly playing on the intricate and intricate flourishes of their DIY electronic organ and synthesizer slash leader. Sometimes resembling the soundtrack of a grindhouse sci-fi movie, this is Ra’s music in its most passionate and unpredictable form.
Some blue but not the kind that is blue
El Saturn LP (1977) CD Atavique
Apart from two extraordinary Ra abstractions, this 1977 ensemble is mainly composed of standards featuring the tenor playing of John Gilmore and Ra on the piano. The rest of the band contribute, but it’s mostly Ra and Gilmore who take center stage, especially on a masterful rendition of “My Favorite Things” by John Coltrane that closely reflects the dynamic joy and energy of the recording. from the original quartet. Also worth mentioning are the two takes of ‘I’ll Get By’ with Ra on piano, bassist Ronnie Boykins and panting tenor Gilmore on one, while trumpeter Akh Tal Ebah appears on the second with Ra leading the way. the electronic organ.
El Saturn LP (1978) 2CD Art Yard Box Set
Recorded live at the Teatro Ciak in Milan, Italy on February 23, 1978, this recording shows Sun Ra and his Arkestra at the height of their free powers. Blending electronic music with bursts of jazz blown by band members John Gilmore and Marshall Allen, the set reaches new heights of uninhibited creativity. The 26-minute title track is a solid electronic spatial groove, littered with drum machine openings and through with masterful horn eruptions. Elsewhere, Gilmore and drummer Luqman Ali shine brightly on the more conventional “Third Planet”. The extended two-disc Art Yard version of this classic is the one to track down if you’re feeling tempted.
Testimonials (1996) CD
In addition to recording and releasing albums, Ra’s El Saturn label also produced limited quantities of 7-inch singles with the goal of breaking into mainstream audiences. With originals at higher prices, this 2-CD set is a cheaper alternative that features an almost unknown side to Sun Ra and the music of his Arkestra. In addition to playing their more signature cosmic jazz, the band is also embarking on a series of doo-wop songs, adopting names such as The Cosmic Rays (with vocalist Calvin Barron) and The Nu Sounds. The result is a weird R&B Arkestrated that sounds old and futuristic at the same time. It’s also worth it for Ra’s cash-in tribute to Batman “I’m Gonna Unmask The Batman” and a shimmering version of “Great Balls Of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis.
In the orbit of Ra
Strut / Art Yard CD / 2-LP (2014)
Presented by current Arkestra conductor Marshall Allen, this chart-topping collection of Sun Ra’s compositions spans almost his entire career and is the perfect introduction to the man and his mystical musical world. Highlights include Moog Infected ‘Astro Black’ (originally released on ABC / Impulse!), Egyptian groove through ‘Ancient Aiethiopa’ and a ‘Rocket Number Nine Take Off For Planet Venus’. There are other compilations (Evidence’s Sun Ra came down to Earth and Blast First is excellent There a minute for example) but here the music, the poetry and the philosophy of Ra do not sound so much remixed or remastered but are reborn for a new generation to discover.
This article originally appeared in the December 2014 / January 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today