With over a hundred full-length recorded albums, Sun Ra’s legacy is an extensive musical library of his cosmic philosophy. It’s a daunting task to contemplate attacking a back-catalogue of over one thousand recorded singles, let alone even considering stripping back the layers of the complex persona that is Ra. However, the job has been started off nicely by Marshall Allen, the longest serving member and current bandleader of the Arkestra. On a year that marks what would have been his hundredth birthday, Allen and Strut Records bring together a collection of musical highlights from Ra’s musical journey spanning over twenty-five years.
Ra’s youth and most of his adult life spanned a period of pronounced development in the fight against discrimination. It was also a time which saw continuous maturation of his own unique philosophy and music. Sun Ra played a whole manner of jazz styles, from ragtime, swing and bebop to free jazz, fusion avant-garde with additional influences of classical music. Within all of these styles – whether through playing or using words – Ra would remind all of his otherworldly origins; or his iconic afrofuturist status of outer space used as a form of escapism from the racist white America.
The musical sci-fi film Space is the Place, whilst pretty psychedelic, nicely incorporates all of these elements, especially the extended footage of the Arkestra playing live. Just be sure to watch with a bit of context first!
Now to the music: ‘Somebody Else’s World’ is the favourite in the collection’s first half. The arrangement of electric piano, bass and a forest floor of percussion nicely augments the sermon sung by June Tyson. The piece is free-flowing jazz with an added feeling of weightlessness from the sustained background of ‘ahs’.
‘Plutonian Nights’ is a downtempo Mingus hard-bop with Latin percussion and sax provided by John Gilmore. The track starts with guttural swinging stabs from the sax, breaking down with a walking double bass into a bluesy swing under expressive solo lines. ‘Angels and Demons at Play’ demonstrates another musical style and incorporates influences from Egyptology through the flute playing. On side two, the captivating ‘Have You Heard the Latest News from Neptune’ feels like part of a musical on board of the Arkestra spaceship. The middle section sees the chorus play a continual riff, whilst the surrounding space is filled with experimental improvisation and Ra’s synth keys.
The favourite, however, is ‘Trying to Put the Blame on Me’ which is a previously unreleased live recording from Rome. This treat perhaps rings most true with the quote on the cover sleeve:
‘Sun Ra said he came from Saturn, because white America treated him like an alien.’ – Paul Worley
The track serves almost as a key to a hidden door, revealing Ra’s raw emotions in as much the music as the words, and portraying his relationship with racist white America: ‘I feel so alone (…) like a different kind of being.’ In the Orbit Of Ra is a pathway into the world of Sun Ra’s music, showing off his musical genius in compositions which were incredibly ahead of their time, and influencing a wide range of genres. A genuine, well crafted masterpiece.