Clad in robes of glittering gold lamé and headgear emblazoned with astral symbols, Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra could tear through hard bop, avant electronic music, free-jazz freak-outs, and scorching big-band swing tunes—all in one concert.
Astonishingly well-versed in technology, theology, and the occult, Ra was deliberately vague about his origins; like Stockhausen, who locates his birthplace in the Sirius system, Sun Ra referred to his birthday as his "arrival day" from the planet Saturn.
How did Herman P. Blount, born in 1914, become the center of an innovative musical collective that continues to this day? It took more than just mystique, though it helped; Blount legally changed his name to Le Sony'r Ra in 1952. He once said Sun Ra is "a business name and my business is changing the planet." An inveterate teacher, Ra led daily rehearsals that could last eight hours or longer. He also offered musicians space to solo, freedom to explore new music, and a proud, hard-working, clean, collective life where musicians often lived and played together under one roof.
Summarizing a discography that spans over 120 records is a difficult task. You can't go wrong with three masterpieces, Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Volumes One and Two as well as The Magic City; however, the singular intensity of those discs can overwhelm the curious listener. I prefer the single-disc collection of two albums, Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy and Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow (Evidence).
Recorded in the early 1960s, Cosmic Tones boasts some amazing electronic music ("Voice of Space," "Adventure-Equation," and especially "Solar Drums") that foreshadows the ultra-dubbed-out work of Lee "Scratch" Perry. Pieces such as "Ankh" and "Kosmos in Blue" groove along in Sun Ra's distinct approach to straight-ahead jazz. Tenor saxophonist John Gilmore's solos on "Kosmos" and the beautiful ballad "Lights on a Satellite" reveal his profound influence on John Coltrane. I also adore the funky "Moon Dance," whose snare drum resembles a vicious door slam; the recordings are lo-fi with some hiss, but nonetheless pack a punch.
Ra returned to Saturn in 1993, but the Arkestra continues to tour under the direction of the band's stalwart saxophonist Marshall Allen. In a 1970 Down Beat interview, Sun Ra reflected on the music he'd heard as a teenager in the late 1920s and early 1930s. His heartfelt tribute aptly encapsulates the Arkestra: "The music they played was a natural happiness of love, so rare I cannot explain it. It was fresh and courageous; daring, sincere, unfettered. It was unmanufactured avant-garde, and still is."