Sun Ra – Media Dreams

Media Dreams

Sun RaMedia Dreams El Saturn 19783 (1978)

Media Dreams was recorded in January 1978 on the same Italian tour as Disco 3000, with the same quartet but earlier in the month.  There are clear parallels with Disco 3000.  Although Sun Ra switches over to a piano toward the end of the album, most of this features him on synthesizer.  Listeners with an affinity for the daring long-form works he was regularly producing in the late 1960s will probably find lots to like here.  For instance, the opening “Saturn Research” is a particularly effective sonic experiment.  On the other hand, listeners not in tune with abstract improvisation will probably prefer other efforts with more grounded rhythms and pronounced melodies.

Sun Ra Arkestra – Hours After

Hours After

Sun Ra ArkestraHours After Black Saint 120 111-2 (1989)

Why don’t people like this more?  It’s pretty much a continuation of what Sun Ra was up to with Reflections in Blue, but also Blue Delight and Purple Night, or even The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra for that matter.  Mostly it leans on big band traditions with trademark Ra harmonic twists and rhythmic subtlety, to great effect on the first two numbers though a little less so on “Beautiful Love” with its quavering vocals.  The last part of the album gets into his more sci fi exotica stuff.  In all, the performances and arrangements are quite good — better even than some of the late 1980s albums just mentioned — and the only real drawback to this is the production, which has a sterile and flat feel that was unfortunately common at the time.

Sun Ra – The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra

The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra

Sun RaThe Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra Savoy MG 12169 (1962)

Sun Ra’s one and only album for Savoy was The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra.  Along with Jazz By Sun Ra, Vol. 1 and the delayed release of Sound of Joy, it was far and away the most hi-fi recording of his music to date.  The sound is mostly beatnik coffee house swing/bop, but with a little more of the percussion-heavy exotica allowed to shine through.  It’s all a bit more reigned in than the various 50s recordings that began to surface in the coming years on Ra’s own El Saturn label, but still good.  Anyone wanting to test the waters with Ra should find this a fine place to start, bearing in mind that Ra’s recordings get quite a bit more adventurous and daring from here on out.

Sun Ra – Live at the Hackney Empire

Live at the Hackney Empire

Sun Ra and The Year 2000 Myth Science ArkestraLive at the Hackney Empire Leo Records LR 214/215 (1994)

Live at the Hackney Empire was recorded in London just a few weeks before a series of strokes severely curtailed Sun Ra’s ability to perform.  That makes it the last great Sun Ra album.  The most challenging material is up front, with the bulk of the rest of the album focusing on back catalog favorites and standards (many of which, like “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and “Yeah, Man!,” had become regular features in concerts).  There is overlap in the set list with other live recordings from the group’s late period (compare Live at Praxis ’84 and Cosmo Omnibus Imagiable Illusion: Live at Pit-Inn Tokyo, Japan, 8,8,1988).  But the length of this set, and the wonderfully warm and effortless performances still make it stand out.  A few guest appearances — Talvin Singh, India Cooke, Elson Dos Santos Nascimento — might also be of interest.  Although some late period records sound like they were made by a band ready for retirement, there is no indication of that here.  Certainly, this only occasionally reaches for the more abrasive sounds the band was known to utilize.  That is hardly a concern.  Even in the mellower moments the performers sound thrilled to be making music.  This might not be a bad place to get your feet wet with Sun Ra and his Arkestra, and longtime fans will probably find this stands in the top tier of the many seemingly similar live albums out there.  It is simply great music with nothing to prove.  If it is autumnal work, it manages to be that in the best possible way.

Sun Ra – The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. 2

The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. 2

Sun Ra and His Solar ArkestraThe Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. 2 ESP-Disk ESP 1017 (1966)

The best of the Heliocentric Wolds Sun Ra albums.  This album may be conclusive proof that the “genre” of “Free Improvisation” (which, incidentally, does not exist) is simply a racist and wrongheaded attempt at revisionist history, nothing more than a power play to shift interest and attention from African-American musical innovators to white hangers-on while simultaneously attempting to create false credibility in the cheap knock-off stuff.  The magazine The Wire had a “free improv” section and readers would regularly write in suggesting that the term be abandoned as not being distinct from “jazz”.  In response, the magazine’s editor has noted the term’s “political” connotations.  Pay attention:  why is it that advocates of “free improv” are ALWAYS white (and also generally white males)?  And why is it that the strongest musician advocates of “free improv” arrive with no credentials in the jazz realm?  And why did one of the originators of “free improv”, Trevor Watts, in essence repudiate the concept?  And why don’t practitioners of “free improv” that meld Euro-classical and jazz forms and techniques simply use the term “Third Stream”, which already existed?  And why did the term “free improv” originate at the same time “British Invasion” rock groups were taking songwriting credit for blues songs actually written by African Americans?  And why do advocates of the term meaning something outside of “free jazz” tend to always have a vested interest in differentiating themselves from practitioners of “free jazz”?  There are answers to ALL of these questions.

Sun Ra – Pathways to Unknown Worlds

Pathways to Unknown Worlds

Sun Ra and His Astro Infinity ArkestraPathways to Unknown Worlds Impulse! ASD-9298 (1975)

Just three tracks on this album, but the opener “Pathways to Unknown Worlds” and the closer “Cosmo-Media” are great ones.  My friend Patrick says there isn’t another album in the Sun Ra catalog quite like this.  It has some of the sparse, fluttering free soloing popular with European free jazz (AKA free improv) players, which Sun Ra had already featured on The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume 2, and even the two Nuits de la Fondation Maeght albums.  But especially from about three-quarters into the title track, and throughout “Cosmo-Media,” there are also more electronics, which makes this more like some of the primarily solo keyboard excursions on The Solar-Myth Approach, Vol. 1, even Atlantis and bits of Space Is the Place.  Ra was incorporating early synthesizer sounds into a small combo setting, which he would do a lot more of later in years to come (Disco 3000, Media Dreams, Oblique Parallax).  The freely improvised soloing found here would not be as relentless in the later years, instead used a bit more sparingly as a change of pace.  Still, nothing in the Sun Ra catalog has such abstract soloing while still managing to be a part of music that is mellow and calm — to a point.  If that isn’t clear, what I mean to say is that this mostly isn’t played like a continuous wall of noise.  There is a lot of space between the notes and some separation between individual performances, but also some semblance of a futuristic sonic fabric at the same time.  Bassist Ronnie Boykins plays boldly and he’s a big feature throughout.  Rarely is an acoustic bassist so prominent on a Ra album.  This one seems like it looks back and ahead at the same time, to things few people paid attention to at any point before, during, or since!  The quality of the solos and the openness of the soling will please Ra fans, though newcomers (at least those not keyed into free jazz) may wish to start elsewhere.  A reissue of the original Pathways to Unknown Worlds adds a bonus track from the original session that was on defective magnetic tape, restored with the aid of modern technology, plus an entire rejected, previously unreleased album tentatively entitled Friendly Love that is a bit less challenging in the solos and coupled with a more persistent base of percussion (yet is still quite nice).

Sun Ra – Lanquidity


Sun RaLanquidity Philly Jazz PJ666 (1978)

Disco has never found such fine improvisational treatment as on Lanquidity. Sun Ra was one of the most interesting musical figures of the last century. He claimed to be from Saturn, and it is practically impossible to prove otherwise. The myth he developed enhanced the music by giving the whole experience a charm all its own. Always one to challenge conventional wisdom, Sun Ra expanded what you could do with “serious” music.

Why a disco-jazz album? Generally, people don’t expect a jazz pioneer to take up doo-wop, R&B, or disco, not to mention both free jazz and big-band jazz. But Sun Ra did, and there is no better way to obliterate worthless preconceptions. In the liner notes to a CD reissue executive producer Tom Buchler quotes Sun Ra saying, “’People are sleeping, and I’m here to wake them up from their slumber.’” While bold statements of space-age philosophy are a natural part of Sun Ra’s myth, there is a literal meaning as well. Occasionally known as “Le Sony’r Ra” or Herman “Sonny” Blount, he was a master of using sound to alter moods — like waking someone in the audience from a drunken stupor, a true story.

Lanquidity has more passion and feeling than seems possible. Sun Ra has absorbed the language of Donna Summer into his improvisational vocabulary. His Arkestra — hailing from Philadelphia somewhat late in Sun Ra’s career — is particularly strong with John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, June Tyson, but also Eddie Gale, and people identified as Disco Kid and Artaukatune. The group’s performance is inspired. The singular vision of the album seldom, if ever, falters. When dealing with talented musicians, restraining them to simple material is challenging, just as working intuitive players of limited means into an ensemble is a challenge. Sun Ra pulls off a unified sound without restricting the creative energy of the collective.

Though sometimes strained, Lanquidity is as effective as nearly anything in Sun Ra’s extensive catalog. At the same time, the songs are very comforting. Song like “There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You of)” and “Twin Stars of Thence” live up to their cosmic names. The music follows a more conventional structure than albums like Atlantis and The Magic City. This never limits the album. The title track explores every creative possibility without over-complicating the matter. “Where Pathways Meet” finds Sun Ra providing varied responses to the main theme and solos, cleverly remaining in the background for most of the song.

This album’s appeal ranges from avant-garde jazz fans to Studio 54 revivalists. While traditional disco fans might find Lanquidity a bit strange at first, it might grow on them. Keep in mind that many original Sun Ra albums had hand-painted covers. The original release of Lanquidity first appeared with only a photocopy attached to the front. Finding these albums was difficult, except for those who frequented Arkestra concerts. Hopefully every Sun Ra release can eventually find a re-release.

Sun Ra – My Brother the Wind Vol. II

My Brother the Wind Vol. 2

Sun RaMy Brother the Wind Vol. II El Saturn LP 523 (1971)

My Brother the Wind Vol II is a tale of two sides–Sun Ra had a penchant for programming El Saturn LPs to be rather different from side to side.  One is filled with solo recordings of Sun Ra taking his then-new mini-moog synthesizer through its paces.  The other side features a full band entering the realm of soul jazz.  Vocalist June Tyson is the star of the group material.  She must have been born with the same Saturn-ian mindset as Ra, because she seems to intuit all of Ra’s music in a way that hardly could be learned.  The group performances feel a bit as if they are making an effort to connect with the organ-driven groove jazz of the type Jimmy Smith played (maybe a closer comparison though would be Larry Young‘s Unity).  That was some of the most popular commercial jazz of the last decade.  The thing is, it was by this time the music of the previous decade.  Sun Ra seemed to be a bit behind the curve when he offered it on an album released in the early 1970s.  Nonetheless, the wilder sax soloing here (“Otherness Blue”) is as unexpected as Sonny Sharrock‘s guitar was in Herbie Mann‘s band (Sharrock has told a funny story about an unfortunate gig in Oshkosh, Wisconsin when some old ladies booked Mann, with Sharrock in tow, entirely by mistake out of confusion between him and Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass and struggled to be polite after hearing Sharrock’s psychedelic performance on electric guitar).  The moog tracks on the flip side were probably pretty out there at the time.  Given what others, and Sun Ra himself (The Solar-Myth Approach Volume 1, The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums: Cymbals / Crystal Spears, Concert for the Comet Kohoutek, etc.), did in the coming years, the sense of experimentation feels quite a bit tamer in retrospect.  This music can feel a little dated in ways later electrified efforts by the Arkestra wouldn’t.  Although this material is decent and pretty accessible for the most part, and it does map out certain elements that would become defining characteristics of Ra’s Seventies period, feel free to skip right past this and come back to it once you have a fair amount of the Sun Ra catalog under your belt.

Sun Ra – We Travel the Space Ways

We Travel the Space Ways

Sun Ra and His Myth Science ArkestraWe Travel the Space Ways El Saturn HK 5445 (1967)

Sort of a vault-clearing assemblage of material recorded in Chicago between 1956 and 1961.  It finds Ra exploring a swinging, bluesy kind of afro-futurist/sci-fi exotica, with a few tracks in a straighter big band mode, though many other Chicago-period recordings are fuller realizations of those styles.  Here the musicians sound just slightly tentative at times and the arrangements are shy of Sun Ra’s very best work.  Still, “Tapestry from an Asteroid” is quite lovely (better than the more polished version on The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra), and “Space Loneliness” and “New Horizons” are the highlights.

Sun Ra – Angels and Demons at Play

Angels and Demons at Play

Sun Ra and His Myth-Science ArkestraAngels and Demons at Play El Saturn Records LP 407 (1965)

The arrival of Marshall Allen to the band in no small part allowed the Arkestra to fully realize the afro-futurist elements in Sun Ra’s music beyond song names and album jacket poetry.  Allen’s flute and Phil Cohran‘s zither do a lot to distinguish the recordings that make up side one from material with distinct big band reference points on side two.  The exotica of someone like Les Baxter was starting to seem a more apt comparison than Fletcher Henderson in those instances.  Great stuff and really a worthy stop on any journey through the Earthly recordings of Sun Ra.

The opener “Tiny Pyramids” (written by Ronnie Boykins) is a dead ringer for Buddy Collette‘s “Blue Sands” (as recorded with Chico Hamilton‘s Quintet) — both open with irregular drumbeats then have prominent minor key flute, with a middle-eastern flavor, though Sun Ra’s version has prominent two-part harmony unlike the Hamilton recording.  “Between Two Worlds” makes use of staccato arrangements, with harmonies from the horns broken up so that what could maybe pass for a typical detective movie or TV show chart is stripped of its familiarity and becomes more unsettling.  The music on side one gets progressively more otherwordly, with Cohran’s zither playing high-pitched strums that cut like shards of glass, and bassist Ronnie Boykins occasionally playing arco (with bow).

As Sun Ra frequently programmed albums in the early/mid 1960s, side two is completely unlike side one.  The Arkestra is playing big band music with more typical horn solos trading off each other.  Side two was recorded four years earlier than the material on side one, with basically an entirely different set of musicians (only John Gilmore and Sun Ra appear on both sides of the album).  “A Call for All Demons,” with a few “tick tick” rhythmic figures on a wood block, quizzical horn charts, and Ra plunking out tipsy individual notes and short clusters of notes on the piano, is one probably the best-known song from the album.  It shifts from dramatic and ominous arrangements with plenty of space to more regular boppish soloing, then it’s on to Ra playing electric keyboard briefly before seguing back to an arrangement like the opening of the song.  It is a mean feat that Ra is able to accomplish the shifts between quite different styles as seamlessly as he does, compressing a mini-suite into a performance just over four minutes long.