Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I'm glad so many people enjoyed my previous post on Sun Ra and his Arkestra and I apologize that it has taken me so long to do a follow up. I wish that I had the time to indulge the enthusiasm you've all shown for his music but I'm a very busy (lazy) person with lot's to do (like nurse a perpetual hangover).

Exploring Sun Ra's discography is daunting for a variety of reasons. Not only is Ra's music some of the most abstract and challenging ever created (and, as much as I enjoy it, after ten years of regularly listening to it, I still can't say that I "get" all of it), but the motherfucker also released a shitload of it. There are over 120 known recordings, many of them out of print or difficult to find, some with alternate covers and titles. So, in addition to it being frustratingly time consuming, it's also incredibly expensive to be a Sun Ra fan. Ra never really worked with a major label (with the exception of Impulse! in the 1960s, at the height of his popularity), most of his stuff being released on Saturn Records or other small labels, and his personal style and philosophy sort of negated the idea of keeping good records, covering the details. At concerts The Arkestra reportedly sold hundreds of unlabelled LPs and from time to time there are stories of collectors finding these things in thrift stores and flea markets across the country. There are also incidents in which Ra is credited with playing on albums, but no one can figure out exactly what he is doing on said album (for instance, Sun Ra is credited with playing synthesizer on Billy Bang's Tribute to Stuff Smith but there is no synthesizer present on the recordings).

The discography attached to the wiki entry I linked to last time is grossly insufficient. Here is a link to a more comprehensive one, maintained by Saturn Web, a collection of scholars and journalists who, after the Arkestra itself, have done the best work in promoting and preserving Ra's legacy. The most comprehensive version of a Sun Ra discography, however, is an 850 page, $80 book called The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra, written by Robert Campbell, a psychology professor from Clemson University. Plenty of collections and newly uncovered stuff has come out since Ra's death in 1993, and The Arkestra continues to put out music as well, which you can buy here.

If this post is as successful as the last one I'll do a third and fourth, and we can try to plow through these things together until we exhaust my collection. As I said before, though, I won't post stuff like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra or We Travel the Spaceways because you should buy those things from your local record store (believe me, both The Arkestra and your local independent record store could really use your support these days). Also, if y'all are interested, I can do other avant garde jazz stuff as well.

Other Planes of There was recorded in 1964, just before the explosion of free jazz, and released two years later on Saturn Records. In the cannon of The Arkestra's work it isn't considered particularly groundbreaking or important but is nevertheless essential as it is a good representation of where Ra was heading with his music. It's here where Ra really starts to tinker with going "out there", relinquishing all of his bebop sensibilities and forging new ground, which would first be achieved....

....on The Magic City, released in 1966. This (of course) is all my opinion, and you're all welcome to disagree with me in the comments, but I think this is Ra's first real masterpiece. It's the first time The Arkestra is really unleashed, the first time they just blow the listener away with something so different, so alien from established ideas of how music should be played and how it should be listened to. It's named after the city of Birmingham, AL, which was Sun Ra's home during his childhood and teenage years. Apparently "The Magic City" was Birmingham's motto back in the 1950s. I've been there and have no idea why anyone would describe that horrid place as magical, but I'm guessing that Sun Ra knew something I didn't.

The most important thing to understand about Sun Ra is that while all of the "I'm from Saturn", "It's after the end of the world", Egyptian motifs and UFO stuff might seem hoaky and even hilarious, none of it was an act. Unlike a lot of other artists Sun Ra really believed all of the stuff he said, he wasn't using a gimmick. There was a philosophy and world view behind it, and when you listen to the music of The Arkestra you have to be willing to enter that world. It's also important to point out that Ra, and many members of The Arkestra, were incredibly gifted musicians who could have had long, successful careers in the mainstream, had they chosen to do so. Ra was so talented with a keyboard that I'll bet he would have totally rocked had he ever collaborated with this dude. Then again, knowing Mr Ra, there could be an album out there of the two kickin' it, we just haven't found it yet.

Other Planes of There
The Magic City


phinehas.roy said...

These are two of my favorite Sun Ra albums. I think you may be under rating Other Planes of There a little, but then I think that album may have been the first one that I heard around 92 or so. Man, that record went well with the punk I was into at that time. Stuff like Born Against and M.I.T.B. It seems strange to me now but at the time it all seemed part of a continuum. God I was a weird teenager.

Shelby Cobras said...

More please.

Helm said...

From the other post I watched Space is the Place and realized what Sun Ra was trying to do for the black community with reclaiming a deeper mythology so that people could have the right to an imagination beyond what their social class allowed them of. In the end his approach isn't straightforward enough for social change, but I'm sure he touched a lot of individuals and his heart was definitely in the right place. I feel awe and respect for Sun Ra, don't think he was at all a gimmick.

That doesn't mean I can listen to his music easily, heh.

Of course we need more posts about Sun Ra or other avant garde, though. Thank you :)

Anonymous said...

magic city looks like a voivod record; secret link?