One of the towering figures of 20th century's music, Alabama-born pianist
Herman "Sun Ra" Blount (1914) became the cosmic musician par excellence.
Despite dressing in extraterrestrial costumes (but inspired by the pharaohs of
ancient Egypt) and despite living inside a self-crafted
sci-fi mythology (he always maintained that he was from Saturn, and no
biographer conclusively proved his birth date)
and despite littering his music with lyrics inspired to a self-penned spiritual philosophy (he never engaged in sexual relationships apparently because he considered himself an angel), Sun Ra
created one of the most original styles of music thanks to a chronic
disrespect for both established dogmas and trendy movements.
A pianist and arranger for Fletcher Henderson's band when he moved to Chicago
in 1946, Sun Ra started his own big band in the old-fashioned swing style in
The influence of Duke Ellington (that would remain throughout
his career) and Thelonious Monk
were the only discernible links to the rest of the human race.
The Arkestra, as it came to be known, relied on its three colorful saxophonists:
tenor saxophonist John Gilmore (from 1953),
alto saxophonist Marshall Allen (1954),
and baritone saxophonist Pat Patrick (1954). The rest was filled by a rotating
case of musicians, whose main role was to bring as much "color" as possible
to the music, particularly any number of percussionists with prominent tympani (but the other players too usually took shifts at playing one or more percussion instruments besides their own).
Their albums were eccentric tonal excursions:
Supersonic Jazz/ Supersonic Sounds (october 1956), with India, the two-part Sunology, Kingdom of Not and the first version of Blues at Midnight,
Sun Song/ Jazz (july 1956), with two trumpeters and trombonist Julian Priester, and containing Call For All Demons and their theme song New Horizons,
Sound Of Joy (november 1957), not released until 1968, with Ankh, Reflections in Blue and Saturn,
Jazz in Silhouette (1958), with the first extended pieces, notably Ancient Aethiopia and Blues at Midnight, besides Velvet,
Lady with the Golden Stockings/ The Nubians of Plutonia (1959), not released until 1966, with the extended percussive orgies Lady With the Golden Stockings and Nubia,
Rocket Number Nine/ Interstellar Low Ways (1960), not released until 1965, with the extended Interstellar Low Ways and Rocket Number Nine Take off for the Planet Venus,
Fate In a Pleasant Mood (june 1960), released in 1965, with the mature percussion-driven sound of Space Mates and Kingdom of Thunder.
But most of the pieces were still short bop divertissments.
A chromatic fixation led Sun Ra to employ all sorts of instruments (including early electronic keyboards), a fact that made him, de facto, one of the most
creative arrangers in the history of jazz music.
Other albums recycled the same material: Visits Planet Earth (1958), recorded between 1956 and 1958, Angels And Demons At Play (1960), We Travel The Spaceways (1961), recorded between 1956 and 1959, which is virtually a tribute to swing music, etc.
The Arkestra, reduced in size, relocated to New York in 1961 and Sun Ra came to be associated with the free-jazz scene, although Sun Ra had already pioneered free jazz in Chicago.
The first New York albums marked a step backwards. Very few pieces continued the trend towards a percussion-dominated harmony:
Beginning on Futuristic Sounds/ We Are The Future (october 1961),
Exotic Two on Bad and Beautiful (december 1961), released in 1972,
Kosmos in Blue and Infinity of the Universe on Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow (1962), released in 1965,
Love in Outer Space on Secrets of the Sun (1962), released in 1965, that also included the proto-psychedelic Solar Differentials and Solar Symbols.
Having created his own record company, Sun Ra was now free to record
anything that happened to please him. And he did not hesitate to take up
Ornette Coleman's challenge with:
Calling Planet Earth on When Sun Comes Out (1963),
the ten-minute Ecstasy of Being and the 18-minute Next Stop Mars on When Angels Speak of Love (1963), released in 1966,
Adventure-Equation and Voice Of Space on Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy (1963), released in 1967,
an album that exuded a psychedelic feeling, three years before the psychedelic explosion.
His albums became more irrational and experimental.
Other Planes of There (1964) contained the 22-minute Other Planes of There, highlighted by the interplay among John Gilmore's tenor sax, Marshall Allen's oboe and Danny Davis' alto sax.
Strange Strings (1966) contained two side-long jams, the bacchanal
Strange Strings and the reverb-heavy Worlds Approaching (another parade of creative solos by the wind instruments and the electric piano).
That was still accessible compared with Featuring Pharoah Sanders and Black Harold (june 1964), released in 1976, whose The Voice of Pan and Dawn Over Israel were childish orgies of random sounds.
Heliocentric Worlds Vol 1 (april 1965) was a minor work, that contained the hypnotic timpani-obsessed Outer Nothingness and The Cosmos.
But the unrelated Heliocentric Worlds Vol 2/ Sun Myth (november 1965) was a colossal undertaking of space jazz, via the 17-minute abstract soundscape of The Sun Myth, the 14-minute satanic crescendo of Cosmic Chaos, and A House of Beauty, that belonged more to chamber music than to free jazz.
The crowning achievement of this period was The Magic City (september 1965), particularly the 27-minute suite The Magic City for a large ensemble of keyboards, trumpet, trombone, alto, tenor, baritone, flute, piccolo, clarinet, bass and percussions, but also the shorter maelstrom of The Shadow World.
The end of the Sixties found Sun Ra in a more eccentric mode than ever,
as documented by the live albums Nothing Is/ Dancing Shadows (may 1966),
later expanded as
the double-cd College Tour Volume One: The Complete Nothing Is,
and Pictures Of Infinity (1968),
by the solo-piano collection Monorails and Satellites (1966)
and the solo-keyboard collection The Solar Myth Approach Vol 2 (1971),
by the electronic and dissonant experiments of The Solar Myth Approach Vol 1 (1970) and
title-suite of Universe In Blue (august 1971).
Years of toying with new instruments and combinations of instruments led to
the new masterpieces:
the epic 22-minute Atlantis on Atlantis (1967),
the four tracks of Outer Spaceways Incorporated (1968), released in 1974,
Continuation To on Continuation (1968),
the electronic The Code of Interdependence on My Brother the Wind (1970)
the synthesizer solo Space Probe (1970).
The Arkestra moved to Philadelphia in 1970, but the lengthy, madcap jams simply became more insane:
Nidhamu (december 1971),
the 18-minute Cosmo Fire (may 1972),
the 21-minute chant Space Is The Place (october 1972),
the 24-minute chant Discipline 27-II (october 1972),
Pathways to Unknown Worlds (1973),
the free-form Cosmo-Earth Fantasy (september 1974),
The Soul Vibrations of Man (november 1977).
Disco 3000 (january 1978) was a (live) quartet recording (keyboards, sax, trumpet, drums) with Sun Ra playing synthesizer and even a drum-machine.
New Steps and Other Voices Other Blues (both january 1978), later collected on The Mystery Of Being, document a quartet with trumpetist Michael Ray, drummer Lugman Ali, and John Gilmore.
Disco 3000 (ReR, 2009) reissues the original album, whereas
Disco 3000 (ReR, 2007) is a double-CD edition including unreleased material.
The triple LP Starwatchers (december 1971), reissued as a double-CD titled Horizon, was recorded live in Egypt.
The double-disc Helsinki 1971 (october 1971) documents another live set.
Slowly, though, Sun Ra's style became more traditional, displaying the links to the roots of jazz (New Orleans' collective improvisation, big-band swing) while the show (that had always included dancers and singers) remained as eccentric as possible, and soon became the main attraction for the world audiences.
The lengthy pieces adopted a lyrical and funky approach, documented by
On Jupiter (october 1979),
I Will Wait For You (june 1979),
Sleeping Beauty (november 1979),
The Rose Hue Mansions of the Sun (september 1980).
After all, he was human.
Sunrise In Different Dimensions
(february 1980) was another live album by the core unit.
Beyond the Purple Star Zone (december 1980) and Oblique Parallax (1981), reissued as Beyond the Purple Star Zone/ Oblique Parallax ReR, 2010), document live performances by midsize bands.
The last vestiges of his ferocious free-jazz assault could be found in
Journey Stars Beyond (july 1981),
Stars That Shine Darkly (november 1983), with an all-star cast including trumpeters Lester Bowie and Don Cherry, and saxophonists Archie Shepp, Marshall Allen and John Gilmore,
and Of Invisible Them (novembre 1989) for a 23-piece Arkestra.
The Outer Space Arkestra comprising of Walter Miller (trumpet),
Tyrone Hill (trombone), Vincent Chancey (flihorn),
Marshall Allen (alto sax), John Gilmore (tenor sax) and Danny Ray
Thompson (flute) is documented on
A Fireside Chat With Lucifer (september 1982), reissued as Nuclear War.
Sun Ra & His Ethnic Structural Cosmo Arkestra's Live At Red Creek (august 1986) features Tyrone Hill (trombone), Marshall Allen (alto sax, flute, perc), John Gilmore (tenor sax, clarinet), Ronald Wilson (tenor sax), Eloe Omoe (alto sax, bass clarinet), James Jackson (Infinity drum), Pat Patrick (alto sax, electric bass), Billy Bang (violin), Bruce Edwards (electric guitar), Buster Smith, Tommy "Bugs" Hunter and Marvin "Boogaloo" Smith (drums) and vocalist June Tyson.
Media Dreams (ReR, 2008) contains
13 pieces recorded by
Sun Ra (piano, organ, moog synth, rhythm machine, vocals), John Gilmore (tenor sax, drums, vocals), Lugman Ali (drums, vocals), Michael Ray (trumpet, vocals)
that reissue Sound Mirror and Disco 300.
Hidden Fire is a series of albums recorded live during the Arkestra's january 1988 concerts at the Knitting Factory.
Hidden Fire 1/2 includes only an untitled track. Hidden Fire 3/4 gathers Retrospect/This World Is Not My
Home/Unidentified Blues, recorded in 1988 with the same lineup. In the meantime, The Eternal Myth Revealed is a 30-disc documentary on Sun Ra's
life and times, compiled by Michael Anderson and
covers the period up to 1956.
Sun Ra died in 1993.
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