Sun Ra is, at the end of it all, a hard guy to figure out. Consider this: he issued albums like most people change their car’s oil. That is: a couple of times a year, and without much thought to the long term. Records came and went for Sun Ra, slipping in and out of print. That’s how it goes when you’re too weird for the mainstream, yet commercial enough to entice labels.
It’s made his discography a mess and the sort of thing that people have made careers out of sorting. The man the Penguin Guide to Jazz once called “the most mysterious figure in jazz” has dozens of records out. Sometimes completely different records have the same title; other times, a record lacks its title cut. But always, even 25 years after his death, Sun Ra remains equally compelling and confusing.
So far this year, there’s two new Sun Ra records: Of Abstract Dreams, and Of Mythic Worlds.
As befits his legacy, each is released by different labels and have convoluted, interesting back stories. So let’s dig in.
Sometime in the mid 1970s, Sun Ra became interested in WXPN, a public radio station in Pennsylvania, and he’d spent some time recording his band there. Of Abstract Dreams is one such recording. There’s four tracks, each of them relatively long, and the show the band tackling deeper cuts and playing some extended, bluesy jazz.
It opens with “Island of the Sun,” and with Sun Ra’s lengthy piano introduction. Before long, a Latin-influenced rhythm section kicks in and Marshall Allen takes the lead with his flute. As the groove builds up, Sun Ra’s piano pushes Allen’s playing along, before he takes the reins for a solo of his own. The way this song builds makes it a nice opener for a session like this: the band slowly works into a groove and gives both Sun Ra and Allen room to maneuver, while also never straying far from the blues-based changes that inspired Sun Ra.
“New Dawn,” meanwhile, is a little more in the jazz vein.
Allen switches back to alto sax here, and he’s joined on reeds by Danny Ray Thompson on baritone, and John Gilmore on tenor. With a lengthy sax solo opening the track, and Sun Ra playing a propulsive bass riff on his piano, the music immediately catches you and sounds of a piece with more traditional hard bop. While Thompson, Allen, and Gilmore’s playing is somewhat free at times, Sun Ra keeps things in check; for all the reputation he gets for his Afrofuturism, at times the way Sun Ra keeps things grounded reminds me of Duke Ellington. His playing here has a spiky edge, particularly on the way he accents the bass notes, but’s never very far outside.
Outside could be a way to describe the madness that’s the original single version of “Unmask the Batman,” which is built around a hard-driving riff, insane vocals and sounds like it was recorded in a wood box; here, it’s been slowed down somewhat and gives room for the chord progression to breathe. Sun Ra’s piano again propels the tune, and Eddie Thompson’s drums keep things in check, but the way the reeds – joined by Eloe Omoe on bass clarinet – mix with the growled vocals and the hard-driving rhythm make it sound like something from Lawrence Welk’s nightmares. In sum, it’s quintessential Sun Sun Ra.
The WXPN session ends with “I’ll Wait For You,” which has a deeply funky swing to it.
For over ten minutes, the band propels along a charged rhythm, Allen and company trading licks with Sun Ra while Thompson’s fills push everything along. There’s a moment which gives the album its title when someone starts reciting the lyrics in a speak-song manner:
“In some far place, many light years in space, I’ll wait for you.”
There’s also a fun moment where all the reeds freak out, and it somehow fits right in.
The other release is a new reissue of Of Mythic Worlds, originally released in 1980.
As per the label, the original album didn’t have any recording information on it: no dates, personnel, that sort of thing. Enter the scholars. Robert L Campbell, who literally wrote the book on the Sun Ra discography, determined the music was recorded in 1978, at a show in Baltimore.
It opens with the slow, winding “Mayan Temples,” where Sun Ra plays an organ and Allen plays some compelling flute. In the background, Danny Davis, Omoe and Danny Thompson play a winding riff and the three percussionists build up a stomping rhythm. While at times it sounds pretty far out there – especially in Sun Ra’s stabs at the organ – it ultimately reminded me of Arthur Blythe’s “My Son Ra,” which he would’ve been playing at about the same time. An interesting coincidence.
The performance gets pretty wild as it goes on.
“Over the Rainbow,” is given a bombastic full-band intro before Sun Ra plays a compelling solo section. When the band jumps in after a few minutes, it’s in a swinging, traditional style; “Inside the Blues” take this conceit and builds it up, with it’s driving rhythm and Sun Ra taking some extended piano leads.
At this point on the original record – side B, for those scoring at home – it switched to a performance that Sun Ra noted was “Live in Chicago.” Well, as the scholars above decided, it actually wasn’t. Rather, it was a studio session from the early 1970s. So, keeping the live album theme alive, two songs a show in Moers in 1979 was swapped in instead. It’s also why the album lacks it’s title track.
But the two performances here are anything but filler.
They instead show the Sun Ra Arkestra as they’d sound when they were on the top of their game. “Space Is the Place” has the band in a full-group chant before they swap off horn riffs and vocal madness; Ra’s piano keeps things from getting too wild, but it’s still a unique affair.
The second medley has more of the same: chanting, then some slow music (the brass section of Curt Pulliam and Michael Ray give it a distinct flavour), before the band deftly segues into something akin to do-wop, with swinging vocals and handclaps and an audience who sound wholly engaged.
Between these two records, each little more than loose sessions, we’re presented with sketches of Sun Ra and his music.
But, when they’re taken together, a picture forms. Over the course of his long career, Sun Ra’s music drew from all sorts of influences and styles. And as the 3-disc Singles set shows, he wasn’t afraid to try his hand at any of them.
But when he was freed from the constraints of the album format Sun Ra and his band would combine styles and forms, mixing them into a music that’s unmistakably his. There were predecessors, sure, and there’s been people who’ve followed in a similar trail. But when he and his band were on, they’re on a plane all their own. Both of these albums show that, each in their own way. Make sure you chase one with the other for full effect.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.