Catching Ra’s Rays

In 1991, two years before Sun Ra finally left Earth, a Philadelphia record-store owner named Jerry Gordon took on the rather daunting task of sweeping out the closets of the cosmic bandleader’s sprawling oeuvre. By conservative estimates, Ra recorded more than a hundred albums in his lifetime, less than half of which are in print. Gordon’s Evidence Music has issued more than its share of these, as well as several compilations, including the relatively popular 1996 two-CD set The Singles, which brought to light Ra’s early experiments with soul jazz and doo-wop. Five recent releases, including a comp of readily available material cheekily titled Greatest Hits, bring the label’s tally up to 21.

Ra, born Herman P. Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, came to Chicago after World War II, where he joined Fletcher Henderson’s band on piano, but by 1951 he’d formed a group to play his own hard-bop compositions. The Arkestra left town in 1961 to play a two-week stint in Montreal, got fired after two nights, and after their visas expired went straight to New York. That’s where When Angels Speak of Love was recorded in 1963, in the shadow of the “new thing” movement, where Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, and Cecil Taylor were jettisoning standard notions of meter and structure.

Ra still had one foot in Chicago at this point, but the other was firmly planted on the moon. “The Idea of It All” is the most conventional jazz tune on the album, with its walking bass and riffing horns, but the bandleader’s steely ivory abuse reveals an affinity with Taylor. On “Next Stop Mars,” after a measure or two of deceptive piano prettiness, Ra lets his fingers run wild, and the horns swoop in at full speed, squealing and whistling and knotting themselves around each other above his dissonant lines. The recording is drenched in echo, a technique that may seem primitive by today’s standards but presaged the electronic alterations that continue to mark edgy jazz, from Evan Parker’s overdubbing to the Chicago Underground Duo’s splicing and dicing.

Less than a decade later, he was cutting loose almost exclusively. Pathways to Unknown Worlds/Friendly Love collects two albums of cued improvisation recorded in 1973, after the Arkestra relocated to Philadelphia and during its brief deal with Impulse. This is the first time Friendly Love has been released; Pathways came out in 1975. On Pathways’s 12-minute title track, the drums roll in like whitecaps whipped up by the wind from a horn section that includes trumpet, oboe, bass clarinet, and baritone sax–and each time they roll back out, they leave behind a fascinating array of flotsam, from Ronnie Boykins’s fluttering bass to puffs of synthesizer dementia. The whole recording, in its lo-fi, in-the-red ragged glory, presages the woolly techniques of rock vanguardists like the Dead C and the Sun City Girls. As with most heavily improvised music, not everything works, and occasionally a burst of sheer energy can’t seem to find anywhere to go, but those moments are the exception. And regardless, it’s thrilling to hear saxists like John Gilmore and Marshall Allen just take flight, the former channeling a restrained introspectiveness while the latter pushes the alto into its extreme upper register.

The two-CD set The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums comprises two more albums that Impulse never released: Cymbals (three tracks from which ended up on Deep Purple, issued by Ra’s own Saturn imprint in the mid-70s) and Crystal Spears. Though it’s all solid material, the one true revelation here is Gilmore’s performance on the 20-minute final track, “Sunrise in the Western Sky.” Rather than building his part up through obvious thematic development, the tenorist plays in awesome fits and starts over loose, African-flavored polyrhythmic rumbles. He frequently shifts direction, but with every return he gains intensity.

The same kind of variety might have benefited Lanquidity, a 1978 recording (originally released by the tiny Philly Jazz label) that has become a favorite of acid jazz DJs. Ra had embraced electronics well before fusion was a glimmer in Miles Davis’s eye, and it’s hard to imagine him deliberately trying to get in on the fad, but the record does sound like a product of its time, with loads of electric piano and synthesizer, two electric guitarists, and structurally rigid tunes. The extroverted funk groove of “Where Pathways Meet” seems oddly stiff compared to the group’s typically limber rhythms, but there’s yet more superb soloing throughout. If nothing else, this recording, radically different from the controlled chaos the group was laying down just five years earlier, shows Ra’s staggering range–and argues for his music’s continued relevance. The more the scope of (and audience for) experimental music continues to expand, bringing rock and electronic music closer to free jazz and improv, the more Sun Ra starts to look like the granddaddy of it all.