One of the most unique and influential artists of the last hundred years, Sun Ra recorded over 100 albums from the 1950s until his death in 1993, alongside his shape-shifting band known as the Arkestra.
Not only is the sheer volume of his recorded output a daunting thing to try to come to terms with, but the range of styles that Ra covered over the years is similarly vast: from big band music to freewheeling avant-garde keyboard solos, small-group vocal jazz to sizzling bebop, almost all corners of jazz music were reached in his pursuit to spread his philosophy of peace and cosmic awareness. Over the years there have been numerous attempts to condense portions of this immense discography into compilations, with Strut delivering one of the best offerings with last year’s In The Orbit Of Ra, made in collaboration with current Arkestra leader Marshall Allen. With this new compilation, To Those of Earth… And Other Worlds, Strut turn instead to the musical mind of Gilles Peterson to select his favourites and pull them into a continuous piece that flows across two CDs, as well as releasing some of its tracks on an unmixed double LP version.
In general, the material on this compilation lands towards the more accessible end of Sun Ra’s work; vocalist June Tyson features quite frequently and the more enigmatic moments of his discography are given less of the spotlight. However, that’s not to say that the weirdness and unique touches that characterise the music of Sun Ra are missed – far from it. The first CD opens up with ‘Calling Planet Earth’, a sprawling piece featuring typically unpredictable organ work and assorted percussion instruments stumbling over each other, followed by ‘Sun Song’, a vocal-led track with a barbershop feel. Also included in the first CD: ‘Dreaming’, given to Peterson on a 45 by John Peel; ‘When There Is No Sun’, which features an excellent performance from saxophonist John Gilmore; and ‘Blackman’, a blown out, bluesy highlight that closes the disc. Thanks to some deft programming even the strangest material makes sense when heard in the context of the mix. For example the experimental, echo-heavy ‘Adventure-Equation’ makes a new impression when heard between the classic ‘Love In Outer Space’ and the flute soloing of ‘Spontaneous Simplicity’.
The second CD carries on the run of clever programming and excellent selections, with disorienting opener ‘Twilight’ flowing into ‘Sleeping Beauty’, a dreamy 1979 recording that has become one of the biggest hits in Sun Ra’s catalogue, thanks to its hypnotic vocals and gentle keyboard chords. Another of the real treats of the compilation is a previously unreleased live recording of ‘Astro Black’ that foregrounds June Tyson’s vocals and surrounds them with some heavy drumming, building to an irresistible groove before transitioning into the winding melody of ‘Somebody Else’s Idea’. The mix then proceeds to take in tracks such as the majestic, drunk big band swing of ‘I Roam The Cosmos’, the paranoia of ‘There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You Of)’ and the joyous ‘The All Of Everything’, before ending on a previously unreleased live version of ‘Space Is The Place’. Taken together, both CDs add up to over two hours of material and provide an excellent introduction to the inimitable music of Sun Ra and his Arkestra for the uninitiated. Peterson’s curational insight to opt for previously unreleased material and his astute ear for sequencing make the collection an equally valid addition to the collections of long-standing and devoted fans.
Gilles Peterson Presents Sun Ra And His Arkestra: To Those Of Earth... And Other Worlds is out now on Strut. Buy in vinyl or digital formats from Bandcamp.