Sun Ra

Sun Ra

A jazz musician that slipped through my fingers when I did the special outlying my initial foray into the genre, this is an artist more proficient at releasing material than the likes of Zappa or Merzbow (at last check he’s accredited with some 160 albums, mostly with entirely original material), and indeed makes them both appear completely sane by comparison. Much of this introduction will deal with him a more biographical sense, which whilst fascinating and helpful in understanding his work, is not entirely necessary to understand the reviews that will follow of a few of his releases.

His birth certificate will tell you he was born in Alabama in the early 1900s, but he would have told you otherwise. It was at university in the mid 1930s that he was studying classical piano that he disappe
ared; he stopped attending classes and was unheard from for weeks. It was only later that he emerged, claiming to have been visited by his real parents from Saturn with a message as to what he should strive to accomplish with his music. Whilst many now would dismiss this notion as insane, consider the context of the time. This was before Roswell in the 50s, before the space race was conceived, decades before flying saucers and abductions were common notions, and thoughts as to extra-terrestrial life forms didn’t really exist in any medium. He was possibly amongst the first to explore the notion of alien life, and this space motif can be heard throughout his work.

It wasn’t long before his attention moved onto j
azz, working with experienced hard-bop musicians and even here was noted for vying for a change, pushing for a continually more experimental style. It was in the 50s that the world really saw what Sun Ra had planned for us, starting his own record label called ‘El Saturn’ Records, he went on to pioneer both Free Jazz and Avant-Jazz, rejecting such traditions as suits for big bands (opting instead for bizarre Egyptian-esque ‘space-like’ costumes), and pioneered an early method for ‘conducting’ big bands through improvisational pieces. It was this constant forward thinking, his controversial style, (and not in the least the gratuitous use electric keyboard in later pieces, of which the creator [Moog] showed him an early prototype he liked so much that he never gave back, and can be heard in much of his work since) and attitude that led to his wide recognition. As much a philosopher as a musician, this is a man that for all his insanity, seems to been decades ahead of his time, and likely has influenced – either directly or indirectly – much of the experimental music today.

Sun Ra – Atlantis

Perhaps the more observant of you will have noticed the absence of a rating for this album. The reason for this is simple, this is an album so unique, so bizarre that I have no frame of reference; nothing to make a comparison to, so then how can it be judged on competency? What does it aim to accomplish? And does it succeed? Even with most Avant-Garde bands there is some form of rock basis do give it some sort of shape or form, but with this free jazz piece it isn’t constrained, and has a dynamic and constantly shifting form. As technical sounding at times as anyone else you could care to mention, this never feels complex for the sake of it. Frequently meandering but with a certain sense of purpose, utilising poly-rhythms (multiple tempo’s from different instruments) this results in a confusing and altogether bizarre outcome, and one that even after multiple listens I cannot decide whether I enjoy listening to, but is certainly a constant source of intrigue.

The first part of the album is dedicated to a small number of instruments, showcasing their capabilities in short and – by comparison – simplistic pieces, including two (rather different) versions of ‘Yucatan,’ performed almost entirely on conga drums, the latter of which features multiple musicians performing on them in a chaotic sounding rhythm which only gets more so by the tracks conclusion. Describing each of the instrumentation as anything but unconventional seems erroneous, yet without entirely understanding what they are attempting to accomplish it simply sounds other-worldly – as though foreign but trying to convey a message (which in fact, may well be his intention anyway).

Concluding with the 20 minute epic title-track, this albu
m may well be worth the download for this alone, easily surpassing the rest of the material presented. Ranging from quiet flutes, to bizarre noises from the electric keyboards, eccentrically performed in an almost random manner, it is these keys that dominate, and quite simply there is nothing like it. Not quite simplistic ‘noise’ but not coherent either, like a David Lynch film that’s confusing and impossible to comprehend but still succeeds in finding you mesmerised. Oddly aggressive and chaotic interspersed with abrupt soft interludes, this is not something to be forgotten quickly.

If this review comes across vague or confusing, that would be because the subject matter too is confusing, and this is one of the more difficult reviews I’ve written. The words to adequately describe this either don’t exist, or aren’t in my vocabulary. Some may find the likes of “Diablo Swing Orchestra” or “Carnival in Coal” weird, but they are a mere shadow compared to this. Completely and utterly insane music from a man who came from beyond the stars.

Highlight: Atlantis

Sun Ra – On Jupiter – 4/5

And onto another piece by the man with an other-worldly plan, a more recognisably melodic showcase of work separated into three distinct tracks, showing a soft lounge-like spacey groove, a healthy dose of funk and a smoother sax-dominated style respectively. In each case his experimental nature rears its head in the form of a continual ‘free’ feel, an unconventionality that succeeds in producing a unique tone to a familiar atmosphere.

Perhaps the most easily accessible of all the works I have heard from him, “UFO” shows a superb bass-laden groove over-layed with multiple saxophone melodies, simplistic yet catchy vocal work and even an addictive guitar solo, it feels not only out of place in this album, but out of place with his more common avant-garde style. The rest of the album works in far more expected manner, maintaining a certain smoothness despite the ‘crazy’ keyboard and unconventional keyboard work, frantically changing pace and pitch, contrasting with the slow backing work and seamlessly moving from slow and harmonious disquieted manner to an intense chaos, when combined with the sax work lends an unpredictability, a bizarre sense of unfamiliarity sustained by the important backing work maintaining the shape of the track.

Each instrument performs aptly – particularly Sun Ra himself on the keys – in creating multiple layers with an odd dissonant rhythm about them, equally capable of being slow and moving as they are chaotic and unpredictable, the drums on the opening track providing an addictive beat for saxophone to swoon and keys to perform fills for. Those who have yet to explore this artist may well find solace in the knowledge that this seems to show a more restrained outlook than much of his work. Filled with smooth grooves, and a cheery upbeat tone, perhaps the only argument against is its often tiring nature; the repetitive nature of some of the lines wearing thin by the tracks conclusion, resulting in limited replay value. Not that this is too much of an issue, for with a discography as large as his there will always be something else for me to explore.