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AN INTRODUCTION TO SUN RA

SUN RA (1914-1993): Born in 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama, Herman Blount changed his name to Sun Ra in 1952. He claimed he had never been born and was delivered to Earth from Saturn to spread universal truths from the cosmos. There was another good reason to change his name, that is to discard, as many other black activists have done in history, his ‘slave name’.


He spent some time in prison as a conscientious objector during the Second World War. Sun Ra played lots of instruments, mostly keyboards and percussion. The styles he embraced during his career were swing, bebop, hard bop, avant-garde, free jazz and space age.


Compiling a chronology is difficult because the Impulse label bought some tapes from Sun Ra in the 1970s, releasing old and new words side-by-side. Sun Ra himself sold limited edition self-financed records at concerts, often unlabelled Sun Ra produced a prolific amount of music but here follows a list of selected LPs to 1970 (no compilations or live recordings):


Jazz by Sun Ra Volume One as Sun Ra and his Arkestra (1957) (recorded 12th July, 1956) (Transition); retitled Sun Song

Super-Sonic Jazz (1957) (Saturn) (released March, 1957);

Jazz in Silhouette (1959) (Saturn)

The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (Savoy) (1961) re-titled We Are In The Future

Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow (Saturn) (1965

The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Volume One (ESP) (Fontana) (1965)

The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Volume Two (ESP) (Fontana) (1966)

Atlantis (Saturn) (1969)


The other musicians Sun Ra brought along with him on his journey into stellar jazz are too numerous to detail but, starting with the leader himself, Sun Ra (keyboards including piano, Wurlitzer electric piano, celeste, Hohner clavinet, organ, clavoline, bells, gong, harp, tuned bongos, marimba and band leader), these included Art Hoyle (early member-trumpet, bells, percussion) John Gilmore (tenor sax, woodblocks, bells); Marshall Allen (alto sax, flute); and various trombone, trumpet, alto sax, flute, bass players (including Pat Patrick) and drummers/ percussionists; as well as the occasional vocals. (Read on for more details of musicians on Sun Ra’s various albums).


As a young man, Blount moved to Chicago, playing piano and working as an arranger for Fletcher Henderson, who was himself a pianist and a big band arranger and band leader. One record was released on the Saturn label as Sun Ra and his Arkestra (featuring Stuff Smith), Deep Purple, was not released until 1973.


The first LP by Sun Ra in his own right with no featured players, just his Arkestra collective, was Jazz By Sun Ra (1957) , which begins with Brainville, a ‘brass fest’ featuring twin trumpets, tenor sax and a trombone solo from Julian Priester; the album’s strong start is maintained by Call for all Demons which concentrates more on the saxes (John Gilmore and James Scales); a Latin feel with Sun Ra on piano and gate-crashing tympani at its conclusion (sudden percussive interventions are features of Sun Ra music). Street Named Hell has a more percussive bent and the showcasing of all the instruments shows the democracy at work within Sun Ra’s music, the leader conducting rather than dominating proceedings. Supersonic Jazz (1957) was an orthodox jazz recording with some quite brilliant passages of play on Soft Talk with its infectious melody; Sunology (in two parts with some fine tenor and baritone sax solos from John Gilmore and multi-instrumentalist Pat Patrick, respectively); and the swinging Super Blonde, while the clashing cymbals and electric piano on opening track India are most evocative. Indeed, Sun Ra’s use of electric piano on the short solo number Advice to Medics feels prophetic of jazz fusion. As Chris Welch points out in the sleeve notes to the Not Now CD, “Exotic use of percussion and instrumental effects was way ahead of its time in 1957. Remember this was before The Beatles and Strawberry Fields Forever brought surrealism into the mainstream.” There is a lot of swing on Jazz in Silhouette (1959) on tracks like Horoscope, Images and the catchy Hours After. Blues At Midnight sounds very different to the version on Supersonic Jazz, twice the length (12 minutes) with a vocal by Hattie Randolph, a rare event in Sun Ra music, and an engaging performance by a well-orchestrated and motivated band. Ancient Ethopia is another long number, nine minutes or so, impressionistic and atmospheric in a similar way to India on Supersonic Jazz, flute appearing to join the mystical sounding drums and cymbals. There were other records from the fifties including The Nubonians of Pluto (The Lady in the Silk Stockings) recorded over 1958/59 but not released on Saturn until 1966; it would be a similar story with Interstellar Low Ways (AKA Rocket Number Nine). Angels and Demons At Play was another one from 1959/60 recordings that have to wait until 1965 for release. Finally, there is We Travel the Space Ways, the recording of which started in 1956 and was completed in 1961, finally appearing as a Saturn album in 1967.The first ‘genuine’ 1960s release was The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (We Are in the Future).


The approach on these first three albums contrasts with the ‘shock’ of the Heliocentric Worlds (1966) albums. Hints of the challenges are evident on early Sun Ra music but the experimentation is taken to a new level and a free jazz style, also endorsed by Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, is adopted. Heliocentric, which opens volume one, is almost Stravinsky-like as bass clarinet, flute and trumpet combine to create a hybrid of jazz and classical. It is notable that Marshall Allen has added piccolo to his alto sax and flute. Outer Nothingness has much bowing and scraping, verging on cacophony in places; Other Worlds has some far out piano, bringing Cecil Taylor to mind perhaps, a blowing session which gives room for the musicians to experiment and create atmospheric sounds rather than display virtuosity. Calm is restored with Sun Ra’s electric piano and bass marimba, accompanied by subtle drum and cymbal work, to create a rich tapestry of sound, but distinctive melodies are few and far between except on the all too short closing number Dancing in the Sun, a nod to the past in its conventionality.


With a distinctive cover, designed by Paul Frick, which shows a German astronomical chart of the solar system with Sun Ra’s picture proudly presented alongside a group of famous astronomers, there are just three pieces on Heliocentric Worlds Volume Two (1966) including the side long The Sun Myth. This is enjoyable in its own way to the broad-minded jazz fan, Ronnie Boylan’s bowed bass and Sun Ra’s tuned bongos start the piece off, various saxes appear around the five-minute mark, the clavoline and piano coming into play shortly after, followed by an extravagant ‘blow-out’ before the clavoline and piano bring back definition. (Indeed, the clavoline makes an eerie buzzing kind of sound at times a bit like the game ‘Operation’ (!) but actually, on closer listening one wonders if Mike Ratledge of Soft Machine and Dave Stewart of Egg were influenced by either the instrument or the perpetrator. The only way I can describe the denouement is like the buzzing of alien bees as the bowed bass returns to the fore. Somehow, it all makes perfect sense. House of Beauty is only five minutes long with Marshall Allen’s piccolo prominent in the first half, an eccentric, if rather fetching piano/ plucked and bowed bass and clavoline ‘melody in the second. The rest of the album is taken up by Cosmic Chaos which actually gets into a groove of sorts, Roger Blank’s fine drumming is effective, propelling the piece forwards. The interplay between bongos, drums- the cymbals in particular and percussive effective, with wailing saxes is quite amazing. Pat Patrick, who would enjoy a forty-year musical association with Sun Ra plays baritone sax on the album (although he was equally at home on alto sax or Fender bass) as would tenor saxophonist John Gilmore.


Multi-instrumentalist Marshall Allen would eventually lead the Arkestra. Difficult though the music is, the band’s ambition has to be admired. There was a volume three, taken from unused recordings in 1965, released as an ESP-Disk in 2005, and entitled The Lost Tapes. The authoritative, never out of print ‘The History of Jazz’ by Ted Gioia puts it this way, “Over the next decade (the 1970s), the Arkestra’s music would embrace an even broader palette; swirling layers of percussion, spooky electronics effects, disjointed echoes of rhythm and blues, hints of Asian and African music, dissonance, atonality, at times aural anarchy.”



AN INTRODUCTION TO SUN RA PART TWO

There are many differing opinions about what Sun Ra’s best music was but, in 1972, Space is the Place (Blue Thumb Records) (the record not the film that took its name) was released and this is the ‘go-to’ album for many initiates. In some ways the side-long opener was Sun Ra’s A Love Supreme with its repetitive vocal line and melody, a lady quartet of singers: June Tyson, Ruth Wright, Cheryl Banks and Judith Holton backed up by ad-libbing male vocalists drawn from the group. The title track to which I refer opens with some space bleeps. Conjuring up some 60s TV series when the swinging jazz kicks in, Danny Thompson and Eloe Omoe extracting some parps, strangulated sounds and resembling a flock of geese at one point on their baritone sax and bass clarinet respectively, propelling the music to the avant-garde where it stays mostly except for when the vocal refrain comes back in. Pat Patrick provides a nice bass riff as an under carriage, the percussion becomes more prominent as the arrangement continues to release space amidst the repetitive melody. Sun Ra’s Farfisa organ is to be heard near the end but sounds more like an electric piano. Space sirens and what sounds like a speeded-up Mickey Mouse are part of the sound effects. There is a stark contrast in the opening of side two, Images seeing Sun Ra at the helm on his piano in an articulate, swinging jazz with a fine John Gilmore tenor sax solo, the origins of this version of the piece lying on the Images on Jazz Silhouette back in the fifties. Discipline 33 has an African feel with multiple flutes (Marshall Allen, Danny Davis, Danny Thompson and Eloe Omoe) and Frank Zappa always springs to mind when I listen to this piece. Sea of Sound is just what it suggests, a free jazz improvisation with some inspired drumming from Lex Humphries. I am not blown away as some reviewers are by Space is the Place, it’s a bit too fragmented for my taste, but do agree it is a good starting point for the curious. Take the best of this and, if you have a penchant for jazz music, you will want to explore further.


A great way to hear the early albums at an economical price is through the Not Now 3 CD set (2017) If you want to listen on vinyl, always the best way I think, an original copy could cost a fortune but there is a Poppydisc/ Rev-Ola reissue that was available through the internet new for between £10 and £15 plus P&P (I am talking about UK distributors here). NB I wrote this a couple of years back and LP prices have since spiralled. Not Now also issued a vinyl version in a different sleeve which is available for around £15. Supersonic Jazz is less widely available as a reissue with a 500-copy limited remastered mono pressing on Poppydisc/ Rev-Ola costing around £25.


As far as Jazz in Silhouette is concerned, there are various vinyl options; Not Now for as little as £10; DOL for around £12; Poppydisc for around £15, and Wax Time, the most expensive, with sleeve variations. There are lots of great compilations of Sun Ra’s music including on CD: Heliocentric Worlds Volumes 1 & 2 (ESP) ( 2005); Complete ESP Disc Recordings CD box; The Heliocentric World of Sun Ra (ESP 3 x CD) (2010); part of the Real Gone series Four Classic Albums (Plus Bonus Singles) (2012) (the first three albums plus The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra + singles As and Bs, nine singles totalling 18 tracks); The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (Not Now) (with the Supersonic Jazz album as a bonus); and on vinyl (3 x LP or 10 x 7”), Sun Ra Singles Volume Two: The Definitive 45s Collection 1962-1991 (Strut, Art Yard) (2017)- expect to pay between £15 and £20 for the 3 x LP set and considerably more for the 7” singles. PS Hand-painted original Sun Ra records are among the most collectable records on the planet.


SUN RA’s LEGACY


Sun Ra has been an influence on a myriad of musical artists and luminaries. These include pianist Lonnie Liston Smith but not just jazz artists alone: George Clinton (Parliament, Funkadelic et al), Afrika Bambaataa, Flying Lotus and Sonic Youth are just a few cited examples for whom Sun Ra’s music resonated, but Frank Zappa also seems an obvious connecting point, consciously or not. John Sinclair, manager of the MC5 was a fan and brought the Arkestra to Detroit where they won over a whole new audience of white fans. The 1974 film Space is the Place, directed by John Coney, has been described as ‘Afrofuturist’, combining a science-fiction plotline with Sun Ra’s philosophy and music. At the start of the film Sun Ra is wearing Egyptian garments on an alien planet, with the plan of colonising it with black people by ‘isotopic transportation’ or by transferring molecules through music. He manages to save a few black people in his version of ‘Noah’s ark’, actually a music-powered space rocket just after the Earth explodes. Sun Ra looked at the issues of equal rights from an unusual angle, telling some young black people, “You’re not real. If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world.” Sun Ra’s fallout with the Black Panther Party (The Arkestra lived in a house owned by the Panthers and were under surveillance by the Oakland Police and the FBI) is also depicted in the film. Indeed, the FBI and NASA are seen as obstructing Sun Ra from playing music and liberating the black people. Sun Ra’s vision was that black people were paralysed by racism and subjugation from fulfilling their true potential and the ‘myth’ world had taken them away from the ‘splendours’ of ancient Egypt where a ‘place in space; was the only way to ensure their future. It is interesting to note that in 1971 Sun Ra was appointed as an artist-in-residence at the University of California in Berkeley where he taught a course entitled ‘The Black Man in the Cosmos’. He also travelled around Egypt with his Arkestra that same year. Compared to the earlier Arkestra when as Ted Gioia put it, “Sun Ra’s coterie of fans came to expect the unexpected.” (This was a time when, almost on a whim, Sun Ra lurched from live shows, with ten musicians to possibly treble that number, with dancers and slide shows sometimes thrown in. It must have been thrilling to attend a Sun Ra concert not knowing quite what to expect!


Generally, it should be noted that, while Sun Ra never dominated his Arkestra’s recordings, seeing himself more as a conductor and arranger, his solo records such as Monorails and Satellites (1966) demonstrate his unique piano style.



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