The fabled and futuristic jazz musician Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Ala., in 1914. Somehow, this simple fact manages to be both remarkable and disappointing, like finding out that the Wizard of Oz is just some old carney from Kansas, or that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is just some nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn. By the time Ra left this material sphere in 1993, he had become a familiar emblem of eccentric genius. Cloaked in purplish motley and a headdress with a blazing star, there was no sign of a mere Herman peaking out, Blount or otherwise.
Of course, Sun Ra wasn’t the only person to have walked around in a funny outfit while claiming to be an alien or an angel or some combination of both. But what kept him from being certified and sent away (aside from the fact that he never harmed anyone) is that his expansive imagination went far beyond his antic re-creation of self — though apparently Blount had to create Ra before Ra could create his music. As early as the mid-’50s, while situated in Chicago, the Ra persona was well-developed while the music remained somewhat Blount-esque, stamped by a taste for unusual arrangemental textures and left-of-center harmonies, but essentially hard bop and — when he could get enough of his acolytes together at the same time — riffing big-band stuff.
But in Ra’s heart, space was always the place and, eventually, developmentally, he loosened the confining elements of timekeeping and chordal guidance, and created a music that wailed and buzzed on its own anti-gravitational turf. Finally, the music caught up with his space couture and Ra became a pioneer of free jazz, a music he never acknowledged. “I don’t play free music, “ he said “because there is no freedom in the universe.”
That’s a pretty harsh sentiment, but it reflects both Ra’s autocratic attitude toward his band-commune-traveling cult (he pulled the strings, even during the long improvisational passages) and the lingering bitterness of a black artist who felt compelled to refashion himself from the inside out, to present himself as a philosopher from outer space who had attained a state of grace beyond the petty squabbles of mere earthlings. Ra dealt with racism in the most absolute manner possible — not by subterfuge or outflanking it, but by leaving the whole damn planet behind.
During the ’50s and ’60s, most of Sun Ra’s recordings were made for his own Saturn label and were very hard to come by (and to put in any kind of context if you did). For a short period in the early ’70s, with the Ra legend in the ascendance, Impulse! took on the Samaritan task of making the Saturns more available. During the past decade, the legacy has been nurtured by the generous tending of the Evidence label, which seems determined to reissue everything Ra ever recorded. A few weeks ago (Sept. 26), five more releases hit the streets, a wide-ranging batch that offers several points of entry for the newcomer.
On When Angels Speak of Love (recorded in 1963), Ra calls his band the Myth Science Arkestra, signifying the interlocking trilogy of creation, knowledge and a boat to get us the hell out of here. This was cut during Ra’s extremely fertile NYC period, when he was perfecting the free jazz he didn’t believe existed. The improvisations may be cued, but once the player hits the ground he’s free to get as freaky as he feels. And so veteran Ra-men like Marshall Allen and John Gilmore can, respectively, make a sky-splitting oboe screech and a shivering tenor sax break down while a mysterious reverb floats, intentionally, in and out of the mix. Pathways to Unknown Worlds/ Friendly Love (two sessions from 1973) gives a slightly more mod feel to a similar approach by dint of Ra’s mini-moog and electric keyboard vibraphone.
If that’s too hard-core, The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums: Cymbals & Crystal Spears (two more from 1973) combines one of Ra’s relatively mellow and bluesy organ dates with one of his elastic exotica sets. Not that there isn’t the occasional arching free-form sprawl or sonic kick in the groin, but overall there’s a tendency toward a slippery grooviness, with Gilmore doing at least one history-of-the-saxophone solo and Ra sounding like there’s hair on his keyboard. And if you’re really cautious, there’s Lanquidity (1978), which, like much late-period Ra, sounds almost conventional, at least until they get to the final cut, “There are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You Of),” a hypnotically lugubrious, 11-minute ballad with electronic twiddles and whispering voices.
But the best neophyte offering is Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel, a much better sampler than the previous Singles, covering 1956 to ’73 and making all the right choices. And note the niche marketing, the subtitle putting Ra in the company of Karla Pandit, if not Martin Denny.
Perhaps this is why Ra still seems relevant — he can be repackaged for the Ironic Age as a bizarre naïf. More likely his relevance is reflected in the various names bestowed on him at the many Ra Web sites (for the mother lode go to innerspace.12pt.com/Ralinks.htm): e.g., the godfather of punk or p-funk or acid jazz or just the sample vat for the DJ connoisseur.
He was a period piece, he was timeless, he was crazy, he knew what he was doing. And you can deal with it.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts unlimited for the Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.