I have enough Sun Ra. Or at least that’s what I told myself immediately before buying Sun Ra’s “Monorails and Satellites, Works for Solo Piano, Vols. 1, 2, 3,” neatly contained in a two CD package. I’ve been telling myself that same thing every time I’ve bought another Sun Ra disc for the past 10, or 12, or 20 years. And I do have enough Sun Ra. Between records and CDs, I’ve got around 60 titles, which comprise around a hundred discs. It sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t even come close to some of the big time collectors who have many hundreds and who are willing to pay hundreds of dollars or more for the rarities.
Sun Ra, for those of you not familiar with his work, led the Arkestra from the mid fifties until his death in 1993. He was also the Arkestra’s composer and keyboardist, playing piano, organ, and various electronics. And sometimes he sang.
Some people, including his official biographer, John Szwed, maintain he was born in Birmingham Alabama. That’s bunk. Ra was born on Saturn. He said so himself, and why would he lie about his planet of birth? And Saturn makes more sense than Alabama. Great jazz musicians might come from Detroit, but Alabama? No offense, but he came from Saturn. Szwed (and others), in order to promote some kind of weird mythology, also pretend that Ra’s real name, his birth name, was Herman Blount, and that he changed it to Sun Ra. Yeah, right. How do people come up with this nonsense anyway?
While Sun Ra and the Arkestra had their fans (like me) they never became hugely popular among the public or even the general jazz public. Even though they boasted musicianship on par with any of the other great bands, not all of their music was what one would call “mainstream.” Sometimes, especially when Ra’s electronics kicked in, the music would go into scary, unexplored musical territory. Sun Ra didn’t use electronics as substitutes for acoustic instruments or for extra-added flash. He used their unique voices to express musical forms and ideas that couldn’t be expressed in any other way by any other instrument.
In order to eat regularly, Ra and the Arkestra toured continuously and recorded prolifically. Well, they didn’t always record. Lots of times it was other people doing the recording. It was kind of a Grateful Dead situation. There are close to a bazillion bootleg recordings, many of them having now been released legitimately on CD and vinyl by a number of domestic and foreign labels.
In the beginning (that would be the 1950s), the Arkestra recorded on Ra’s own Saturn label. These early recordings came out in small editions and are the ones now worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. Later, in the 1970s, ABC Impulse rereleased some of Ra’s Saturn recordings. They’ve all since shown up as CDs along with many more titles released on the Evidence label. Other recordings were released throughout the years on various other small avant-garde labels. When they hit the medium time and finally became noticed in the 80s, they had a small number of major label releases that were actually recorded in legitimate recording studios. The official Sun Ra discography, including ephemeral and peripheral information is 850 pages.
I happened to stumble upon Sun Ra, accidentally. Back in the mid 70s, record shopping at the long-gone E. J. Korvette’s on Southfield Road, I found some Sun Ra records with wild, science fiction-like covers, including one which is my all-time favorite record/song title, “Fate in a Pleasant Mood.” I bought it along with a couple of others, took them home, played them, and then panicked, hoping that my parents didn’t hear the music I was playing because they would lock me up in a home for the musically insane.
I played these records very rarely and only when no one else was home. I played one record, Atlantis for some college roommates one night when we were talking about weird music, and much hilarity ensued. I was certainly not going to buy any more of these records no matter how much I liked the covers.
Then one day, I was at a co-worker’s house. The subject of Sun Ra came up. He pulled out “Angels and Demons at Play.” It sounded (mostly) like “normal” music. So I went out and bought it. But no more! That was going to be it! I had enough!
And that might have been it if I hadn’t gone to see the Arkestra at the Detroit Institute of Arts some time around 1980. By this time I had heard enough of their music to become comfortable with it, and I’d seen Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell in concert, so I knew I could handle it.
The opening was cool. A percussionist came out and began playing the Space Infinity Drum. One by one, other Arkestra members entered the stage and began playing other percussion instruments followed by the woodwinds, brass, and strings. It built to a glorious, cacophonous noise. Then I started hearing melodies and harmonies within the cacophony. Of course, as I told myself, that’s impossible. This is just a wild mass of screaming wind instruments, strange strings, and random percussion . . . except for those harmonies and melodies that I kept hearing within the musical maelstrom. It was like a musical Zen koan. My brain continued this argument with itself for a few minutes – until – I was stoned. The music had gotten me high. I hadn’t smoked any dope, but there I was – floating. Or maybe I had achieved enlightenment, I’m not sure. But if this was enlightenment, it was far out man! This high lasted for about fifteen minutes, well into the first real (?) composition.
It should come as no surprise that this experience permanently cemented my love for Sun Ra. I attended other shows throughout the years, and although none of the other shows got me stoned, they did take me on “pathways to unknown worlds.” And the shows were always a great musical spectacle. The musicians were always decked in their space age costumes. During the course of a show, they would go through many moods, from primal drumming and chanting to electronic music that hadn’t even been invented yet, mixed in with extended improvisations and stretches of straight ahead jazz standards featuring Arkestra soloists like John Gilmore, Marshal Allen, Pat Patrick, Michael Ray and Ra himself. Choosing the standards must have been based on Ra’s mood on any given night. He would begin the song on piano, and the musicians would go through their sheet music until they found the tune he was playing. There would be interludes in which most of the Arkestra marched around the theater playing various percussion instruments while Ra remained in place, and the drummers stayed at their drums supplying the rhythmic template. The shows would usually go on for two or three hours. There was never anything better.
On trips to New York City, a visit to the Jazz Record Center was always on the itinerary in order to buy Arkestra records on obscure jazz labels that would never make it to Detroit. Later, Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart became another big city record store stop. Back in those ancient days when record stores were everywhere, there were also regular trips to Detroit’s own Car City Records. If any store was going to have some lesser-known Sun Ra, it was going to be Car City. The most exciting records though, were the ones I bought at the concerts. I bought at least one record, from Sun Ra’s own Saturn label, at every Sun Ra show I attended. Some of them had no cover art. Some had no song titles on the label. Some of them were live recordings that sounded like the producer started and stopped the tape in random spots to make the record. On one record (I forget which one), band members do their walk and chant around the venue. You can hear the chanting and percussion slowly fade away as the musicians march up the aisle, and then slowly fade back in as they make their way back to the stage. It didn’t matter. I’m glad of every single one I bought, and I should have bought more.
As with every other musical artist, over the years undiscovered, recently discovered, newly discovered, and unearthed recordings have been released for our listening pleasure. Most of the time, the sound on these recordings ranges from listenable to pretty bad. There are exceptions, but most of these sound like low-budget affairs. Sometimes even when concerts were professionally recorded the release didn’t sound quite professional.
Example: A few years ago a small label calling itself Transparency released “Sun Ra and the Omniverse Jet Set Arkestra: The Complete Detroit Jazz Center Residency” on 28 CR-Rs. They only released 400 copies, but at $85.00 it was a “must have.” It was professionally recorded but the set was remastered from the original cassette soundboard recordings, so while the music is spectacular, the sound is not so great. Somebody must know why it wasn’t mastered from the original tapes rather than a cassette.
At this point, you might be wondering which of the many hundreds of Sun Ra records (or CDs) are “safe” for the buy curious music lover who wants to jump into this legendary musician’s oeuvre.
Don’t worry. There are a few that sound like “regular” jazz. I already told you about Angels and Demons at Play. There is also “Supersonic Jazz.” They were both recorded in the 1950s and are available on CD and as downloads. Another recommended starting point is “Lanquidity.” It’s not quite as mainstream, but it is surprisingly lovely.
If you’re into straight concert recordings, Leo and other labels, over the years have released a bunch of full concerts recorded in various American and European cities in the late 80s and early 90s. Prior to this, only portions of concerts had been released, like the live Saturn releases and “Nothing Is.”
Horo, an Italian label, recorded and released some Sun Ra quartet recordings. They are worth buying. So are some of other small group and solo recordings (like Monorails and Satellites). Art Yard, another Italian label, is slipping more Sun Ra into the collective consciousness.
Going beyond the safe into what might be for some, uncharted territory, there are lots of choices. As I make these recommendations I do have to warn you; my brain has changed since I began listening to this wacky, way out music. Bands and compositions that used to sound bizarre to me now sound perfectly normal, so be warned. But some good ones that might not be too far out (in my opinion) are Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Vol. 2, My Brother the Wind, In Some Far Place (mostly solo and duet with a drummer), It’s After the End of the World, Somewhere Else, Salute to Walt Disney, Fate in a Pleasant Mood, Mayan Temples, and Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth/Interstellar Low Ways, a twofer on the Evidence label. Of course there are others, but I don’t want to go on for 850 pages.
Maybe you want to test listen some Sun Ra before you purchase any or have it take up space on your precious play list. Give some of these a listen:
These are some of Sun Ra’s greatest hits, tunes that the Arkestra played over and over again, because they are really good. So there are countless versions scattered about.
Even though Sun Ra returned to Saturn in 1993, you can still see the Arkestra perform. They are still touring and playing under the direction of one of the original Arkestra members, Marshall Allen. By “original member” I mean he’s been playing alto sax, flute, and percussion with the Arkestra since 1958. In addition, Danny Ray Thompson has been playing various woodwinds with the band since 1968. Allen is 95, and Thompson is quite aged too, so if you want to catch these old timers, you might want to attend their very next performance in your neighborhood.
As with every other band that has ever recorded, watching old Arkestra performances is possible from the comfort of your own home office chair. But don’t be limited. There are also two professionally made Sun Ra movies; Space is the Place and A Joyful Noise. You can also listen to this Sun Ra lecture from series of lectures he gave in Berkeley, California. For readers, there is a large collection of his joyous, adventurous, philosophical poetry, prose, and lyrics. It’s called The Immeasurable Equation.
“If you do wrong, you have to pay,
But if you do right, you have to pay too;
Also if you do nothing
You have to pay. They have vagrancy
laws you know.
You can go to jail for doing wrong.
You can go to jail for doing right.
You can go to jail for doing nothing.
You have never been told this before
so now you know.”
I could tell you more, but this has put me in a Sun Ra buying mood, because you know what? There is no such thing as “enough” Sun Ra.