Sun Ra was a piano prodigy, a band-leader and a self-styled emissary from Saturn who cut an idiosyncratic swathe through 20th century jazz. His music, though dazzling in many respects, isn't for everyone. That's their loss.
Born Herman Poole Blount in the deeply segregated Alabama of the 1910s, Ra's taciturn nature and chronic health issues meant he spent most days at the piano. While at college in the 1930s he claimed to have been abducted by aliens, fully 17 years before 'flying saucers' became entrenched in the American psyche. Ra credited this interstellar excursion as the spur behind his lifelong preoccupation with outer space, numerology, and science fiction, suffused with a rootsy brand of spiritualism in which many critics see the original genesis of the Afro-futurist movement.
But is the music any good? Having released some 125 full-length LPs with countless incarnations of 'Arkestra', this two-disc selection compiled by Jazz-maven Gilles Peterson has a great deal to draw from, and with a refreshing insouciance regards chronology you may as well assume this is the best of all configurations.
The album leaves the launchpad as it means to go on, with 'Calling Planet Earth', a reverby 24-second chant you'd chalk up to LSD if the Arkestra weren't proudly teetotal throughout the lysergic golden age of the '60s and '70s.
Jazz haters will switch off fairly sharpish after this; a convoluted drum break which sounds for all the world like a skeleton having a wank in a biscuit tin. 'Sun Song' brings things gently back to earth, and while on the moody side this cut wouldn't sound far out of place on The Jungle Book soundtrack. Next up 'Dreaming', a straight-up divine slice of old timey doo-wop, and one of a dozen or so tracks which make this collection, if nothing else, a goldmine for sample-vultures or those compiling film soundtracks.
The genre-hopping is occasionally jarring, and should come with a seasickness warning. 'India' is a hypnotic slice of interwoven cymbal motifs and horn mantras. 'Space Loneliness' is a very palatable dollop of trad piano with sultry Pink Panther brass. 'Moog solo' and 'Brazilian Sun' are challengingly weird (not to say insane), where 'Love In Outer Space' reveals an almost by-the-numbers pop sensibility; think Georgie Fame once the acid kicks in.
By the time you're this deep into the record it really bears repeating - they didn't do acid. Once you're accustomed to the madness, disc two has some thought-provoking moments. In 'They Plan to Leave' we learn that the government intend to put the White House on the moon, soon '...and the Kremlin on a satellite.' On 'Children of the Sun' our diligent solar neighbour is congratulated on having risen and fallen for thousands of years '...and never missed a day.' 'Somebody Else's Idea' is, again, eminently sample-worthy (it's probably sacrilege to say it, but Fatboy Slim would wrangle a right banger out of it).
Like acid (which, again, he never touched) this record is illuminating, often inaccessible, often scary and most people would hate it. But it's still one hell of a trip.
Words: Andy Hill
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