It seems uncanny in retrospect, but the first time I encountered Sun Ra’s music was as a teenager watching MTV. The passing of the avant-garde jazz composer born Herman Blount in May of 1993 was reported in the midst of broadcasting “Whoomp! (There It Is)” and “Whoot, There It Is” videos, which seems as incongruous as if news of Captain Beefheart’s passing had merited mention during “Jersey Shore” commercial breaks (it didn’t). There’s still no news item that seems quite like a transmission beamed from the stars as having Kurt Loder suggest that viewers investigate Sun Ra’s extraterrestrial 1963 album, Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy.
With over a hundred full-length albums stretching from 1956 until the early ’90s, some hand-painted and self-released, Sun Ra’s recorded work is less a discography than a cosmology. Sun Ra embodied both the history of jazz as well as its future, evolving from big band swing and stride piano to space gospel and white noise blat, with live shows that embraced all of it. He’s one of the 20th century’s singular human beings, yet one who claimed to be an alien. Before George Clinton‘s mothership landed, before Cybotron and electro, before Lil Wayne‘s croak about being a martian, Sun Ra was already floating in space. Depending on what album you investigate, though, you might imagine that Sun Ra made woozy doo-wop, shrieking paeans to Atlantis, landings on the moon, odes to Batman, future disco, ditties about the atomic bomb, or gentle versions of Disney tunes. Which is to say that there’s no exact portal into Ra’s world.
Spanning twenty songs across two discs, longtime Ra reedman Marshall Allen’s well-curated In the Orbit of Ra covers as much ground (or, rather, space) as any one set can. Ra alights on almost all aspects of its bandleader’s multidimensional sound and presents a coherent trajectory through it, alternating between otherworldly explorations and earthbound beats. It opens with the deft melodic turns of “Somewhere in Space”, recorded in 1958, and moves into the drum-drunk seven-minute suite “The Lady With The Golden Stockings”, recorded just two years on.
Those heavy drums and crystalline melodies meld with two of Sun Ra’s more familiar instruments, his electric piano and the space chants of his longtime vocalist June Tyson, on “Somebody Else’s World.” Swift figures of upright bass, drums, bells and twinkling celeste power “Angels And Demons At Play”, creating the sort of winsome miniatures that are reminiscent of Aphex Twin at his most gentle (“Flim” and “Nannou” in particular). The jittery piano figure and afterburner chording of “Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus” might be Sun Ra’s biggest “hit”, a swinging hard bop number that soon opens up to allow room for his triumvirate of reedmen John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, and Marshall Allen to take extended solos, as well as bassist Ronnie Boykins’ quiet yet mesmeric solo that hints at the galaxy surrounding, before the ensemble convenes again to chant in unison: “Second stop at Jupiter!” like interplanetary bus drivers.
The second disc dives into Sun Ra’s more outré fare, balancing it with more classic jazz numbers. “Astro Black”, the ten-minute suite from his 1973 album of the same name, sounds like Duke Ellington’s jungle music shot into deepest space. “Astro Black Mythology/ Astro Timeless Immortality/ Astro Thought in Mystic Sound” June Tyson intones like a saleslady from Outer Spaceways Incorporated, the growls of saxophones now react to the radiation emitted from Sun Ra’s prototype synthesizers, which whirr and bleep like malfunctioning satellites. For a taste of Sun Ra’s influence on electronic dance music and minimal techno of all stripes, there’s the dizzying eleven-minute pulsars of “Dance of the Cosmo Aliens.”
While the shrieks, squalls, and space junk noise was what initially drew me to Sun Ra’s music as a teenager, as the years have passed, I now find myself revisiting the twinkling polyrhythmic pieces that comprise the last half of the second disc, highlighted by numbers like “The Nile” and “Planet Earth.” That in the late ’80s Sun Ra and His Arkestra would offer up a charming cover of “Pink Elephants On Parade”, from Dumbo, shows the latent childlike wonder coursing through his vast catalog.
But Ra’s music is a mixture of open-eared innocence as well as the darkest blues. Those space chants are but field hollers transported to outer space, far from the world of deeply-embittered segregation he lived through in America. He posited himself as an alien life form so as to embody his sense of estrangement here on Earth. “This world is strange to me,” he sings on the piano ballad “Trying to Put the Blame On Me.” “I feel alone/ so all alone/ like a different kind of being.”
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/Z7olak