Sun Ra

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Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy / Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow

Sun Ra wasn’t just a far-out jazz musician; he was a jazz musician from Saturn, which is around 800 million miles away. Knowing this sheds a lot of light on his music. These two offerings from the Myth Science Arkestra, recorded between 1961 and 1963, involve lots of percussion, bass clarinet and oboe, as well as some serious reverb. Probably the furthest-out music the Earth had witnessed at the time, using this CD as background music might well pose a risk to mental health. The moping and grumpy ‘Ankh’ is an atypical track, since it swings (or rather lunges), but it is definitely a highlight.
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Strange Strings

In 1966 Sun Ra recorded what must surely be the strangest album ever: whenever I put it on I can hardly believe it. ‘Worlds Approaching’ provides the introduction, which involves heavy reverb effects, Ra’s early synth sounds, and ‘lightning drums’. Then, if you make it through to the other side, you reach the ‘Strange Strings’ tracks: Ra gave the members of his Astro Infinity Arkestra a wide variety of strings to play instead of their usual instruments. Finally, as a bonus, the CD adds ‘Door Squeak’ from the following year, which is a recording of Ra opening and closing a creaky door for ten minutes. What I find unfathomable is that on hearing the recording of the creaks back, Ra decided it wasn’t good enough and rejected it: what was he expecting?
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Atlantis

Recorded from 1967-9, this album is generally acknowledged as Ra’s masterpiece; the fact that it has received this critical acclaim, and hence a certain institutional respectability, suggests that the world is a far stranger place than it ordinarily seems. ‘Atlantis’ is a 46 minute experience, and easy to describe. First there are some very casual tracks, featuring lots of drumming, which sound like a bunch of guys noodling around before or after a rehearsal. This gives you a chance to relax; sit back, chat with your friends, pour a drink, or whatever. Second, the alarm kicks in, so you know it’s all about to begin. Third, Sun Ra plays his ‘Solar Sound Organ’. Fourth, those who survived the intergalactic bombardment from the organ are rewarded with the Astro Infinity Arkestra playing a truly astonishing 5 minute arrangement in which Ra reveals his debt to Duke Ellington; tempting as it might be to skip straight to this section, only a philistine would do such a thing, and it probably wouldn’t sound as good out of context anyway. Fifth, the Arkestra chant a brief prayer to Ra.
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Life is Splendid

Played live at a 1972 jazz festival to a crowd of 12,000, this wild, raucous and very noisy album sometimes gets so extreme that all semblance of control is abandoned. By this time the Solar Myth Arkestra had settled into its most familiar sound, with lots of invitations to join the cult of Ra, mainly sung by June Tyson, alongside heavy doses of extreme avant-garde solos, most notably the violent, metallic alto of Marshall Allen and the slightly less insane and more refined tenor of John Gilmore. In addition there is yodelling, hysterical screaming, some ‘space organ’, and an Ellingtonian big-band section reminiscent of ‘Atlantis’. The highlight is ‘What Planet is This? / Life is Splendid’, which involves the band members asking why people have to die, and concluding that it is hilariously funny that ‘they call this life’ in spite of the inevitability of death: the whole Arkestra bursts into hysterics. The alternative of ‘going into outer space’ is then outlined.
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Second Star to the Right (Salute to Walt Disney)

The Intergalaxtic Arkestra had calmed down a little bit by the time of this 1989 live recording; I saw them a couple of years later, and they spent much of their time on stage worshipping Ra, while he slowly span around with his arms outstretched to display his other-worldly robes. That said, these recordings of Walt Disney’s ‘very nice songs’ (as Ra put it) are pretty insane, and involve plenty of extreme solos and deranged onstage chanting, singing, commenting, shouting, and giggling. I wondered if it would be possible to get my 3-year old daughter into Sun Ra with this album, and found that it most certainly was; I ended up having to listen to tracks like ‘Zip a dee doo dah’ and ‘High ho! High ho!’ again and again and again: eventually they started sounding thoroughly normal. Note Ra asserting his authority near the start of ‘Zip a dee doo dah’, just when it seems the alto has everything under control; a good example of his famous ‘discipline’.