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Sun Ra

Reviewed on this page:
Jazz In Silhouette - Visits Planet Earth - The Lady With The Golden Stockings - Angels And Demons At Play - Rocket Number Nine - Fate In A Pleasant Mood - We Travel The Spaceways - The Futuristic Sounds Of Sun Ra - Bad And Beautiful - Art Forms For Dimensions Tomorrow - When Sun Comes Out - Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy - The Heliotropic Worlds Of Sun Ra, Volume 1 - The Heliotropic Worlds Of Sun Ra, Volume 2 - Atlantis - Concert For The Comet Kohoutek - Space Is The Place - Friendly Love - Pathways To Unknown Worlds

Though he frequently denied having been born and traced his lineage to Saturn, Sun Ra was born Herman "Sonny" Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914. By the time he finished high school he was playing piano in jazz combos, and soon formed the Sonny Blount Orchestra. During World War Two he was jailed as a conscientious objector, and in 1946 he moved to Chicago, where he played with early idol Fletcher Henderson and became musical director for the Dukes Of Swing. In 1952 he changed his name to Le Sony'r Ra, announced that he had come from Saturn to serve as the cosmic communicator, and started putting together an "Arkestra" to reflect that mission. From the beginning Sun Ra relied on his own Saturn label and sold records at gigs; I'm not aware of any other artist who did that in the 50s. Pretty soon the Arkestra began exploring free jazz and communal living (which seem to go together for some reason), Sun Ra was amplifying his keyboards and writing vocal chants ("We Travel The Spaceways"), and all hell broke loose.

Sure he's weird, you ask, but is he any good? Well, Ra and a number of his sidemen (Gilmore in particular) had plenty of technical facility, and you can hear that when they play structured music: they weren't driven into free jazz through inability to play the regular stuff. And when the far-our approach works - the wild echoing on Cosmic Tones, for example - it works like nothing else you've ever heard. That said, squealing reeds don't do much for me in the best of circumstances, and much of the Arkestra's percussion and synth noodling sounds downright amateurish.

Though Sun Ra's records were almost impossible to find on original issue, Evidence later did a tremendous job of reissuing his important work, often cramming two LPs onto one CD, and in 2014 iTunes commissioned a Still, his catalog is so enormous and confusing I'm not going to list the records I don't have - I'll try to fill in the discography over time. (DBW)

Sun Ra, keyboards; John Gilmore, tenor sax and clarinet; Pat Patrick, James Spaulding and Marshall Allen, alto sax and flute; Ronnie Boykins, bass; Ahmed Abdullah, trumpet; Danny Davis, alto sax; Akh Tal Ebal and Kwame Hadi, trumpet; Bugs Hunter, Clifford Jarvis, drums; James Jacson, reeds; June Tyson, vocals. Everyone doubled on percussion.


After a variety of adventures, things really started coming together in Chicago the early 50s: He changed his legal name to Le Sony'r Ra, put together what would remain the core of the Arkestra - first Pat Patrick and Bugs Hunter, then James Gilmore and Marshall Allen - and connected with business manager/superfan Alton Abraham, who soon launched Saturn Records, the primary vehicle for the Arkestra's recorded output for the rest of Sun Ra's visit to our planet. Early on, the group began exploring stage costumes that referenced both outer space and Ancient Egypt, basically inventing Afrofuturism. Before leaving Chicago for New York City in 1960, Sun Ra went through three mini-periods: a doo wop phase, mostly documented on singles with band names like The CosmiC Rays; a bebop phase which, though brief, remains the Arkestra's most accessible period; and then a move into long pieces light on harmonic movement and heavy on percussion (which is what I clumsily refer to as "space music").

Jazz In Silhouette (Sun Ra and his Arkestra: 1958)
This isn't typical Ra, and I suppose I should drop the rating for that, but the truth is I enjoy this more than nearly all his later space music. Both sides are in the same format: three brief, fairly conventional bebop tunes, and one long number. The bop is fun ("Velvet"), with Sun Ra's big band instincts on display ("Saturn," with the horns deftly shifting between harmony and counterpoint). The one experimental tune isn't bad either: "Ancient Aethiopia" has a thick percussion base and a bass vamp, and a spare section with a gorgeous muted trumpet solo from Hobart Dotson that recalls Miles Davis's Sketches Of Spain. "Blues At Midnight," which had also been recorded a couple years earlier, is uptempo bebop with a walking bass line and some fine solos from Dotson and one of the flute players (I'm guessing Allen). (DBW)

Visits Planet Earth (Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra: rec. 1956-8, rel. 1966)
Even more bop-heavy than Silhouette, with swaggering tunes like "Reflections In Blue" - with a Monk-like piano solo, even - and a faster, rougher version of "Saturn." The thundering "El Viktor" points the way toward Ra's later preoccupation with percussion, but the stating of the theme followed by individual solos closely follows the conventions of the time. The second side (later re-released on 1968's Sound Of Joy) includes some extremely prominent bells in the otherwise straight "Planet Earth," bombastic percussion and flute soloing in the middle of "Overtones Of China," and a very dramatic, chunky piano solo to open "Eve." (DBW)

The Lady With The Golden Stockings (Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra: rec. 1958-1959, rel. 1966)
Drawn from band rehearsals, it's another mix of long percussion showpieces ("Nubia," "The Golden Lady") and bop-inflected big band ("Watusa," "Star Time"), but both are more entertaining than usual. Both Pat Patrick and Charles Davis play baritone sax on occasion, which gives the proceedings a meatier feel than usual ("Plutonian Nights"), Ra gets some interesting efects on electic piano ("Nubia") and bassist Ronald Boykins keeps things focused throughout (and throws in a thoughtful solo on "The Golden Lady"). The overly mellow "Africa" is the only throwaway, though the recording of "Aithiopia" differs little from the Jazz In Silhouette version. Also known as The Nubians Of Plutonia; released on a twofer with Angels And Demons At Play. (DBW)

Angels And Demons At Play (Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra: rec. 1956-60, rel. 1963?)
One side of bop recorded in 1956 (Julian Priester's uptempo "Urnack," with a furious baritone sax solo from Charles Davis) and one side of space music recorded in 1960. The difference between the two sides is positively jarring: the 1960 side features two percussive compositions from Boykins - the title track and "Tiny Pyramids" - the pleasant but slight groove "Between Two Worlds," and "Music From The World Tomorrow," which has a prominent zither part amid utter chaos. The horns don't get much to do, though Allen takes a flute solo on "Angels And Demons," and Ra doesn't play much either. The 1956 side is rousing and energetic, but so close to genre norms (titles like "Demon's Lullaby" notwithstanding) there's nothing particularly Sun Ra about it. With a total runtime under twenty-five minutes, this is an easy one to skip. (DBW)

Rocket Number Nine (Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra: rec. 1960, rel. 1965?)
Some relatively straight jazz ("Somewhere In Space") and some chant-and-bang noise. There's a vocal remake of the previously instrumental "Interplanetary Music," and "Space Loneliness" is also reworked. "Interstellar Low Ways" is an overlong modal number with a meandering flute solo, but in the middle Ra plays some wonderfully jarring piano. The title tune (full title: "Rocket Number Nine Take Off For The Planet Venus") was covered by proto-punkers MC5, but it's nothing special, just another "way out" chant with rumbling piano and noisy reeds. Also known as Interstellar Low Ways. (DBW)

Fate In A Pleasant Mood (Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra: rec. 1960, rel. 1965)
A mix of small-band swing and outré weirdness, and both are a bit mellower and more pleasant than usual. The tunes are fun ("The Others In Their World," the swinging "Distant Stars") and again, Allen's flute is more than welcome (the gentle "Lights Of A Satellite"). The title track is shockingly polished, with laid-back trap drumming, horns counterpointing in bossa nova rhythms, and soothing piano thrums. The only real drag is the lengthy, stop/start suite "Space Mates." Released on a twofer CD with When Sun Comes Out. (DBW)

We Travel The Spaceways (Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra: rec. 1956-61, rel. 1967)
The best example I've heard of Ra's roots in big band swing: the arrangements here owe far more to Ellington and (I assume) Fletcher Henderson than to any kind of bop. Includes superb remakes of "Eve," "Velvet" and the blues "Space Loneliness"; the lovely, mellow "Tapestry From An Asteroid," with Phil Cohran carrying the melody on trumpet, is a highlight. The title song - a percussion-and-voice chant interrupted by an incongrous swing break - and the roughly similar "Interplanetary Music" are the only really "out" numbers. (DBW)

New York

The Arkestra contracted for a while as some of the Chicago members declined to relocate, and the smaller ensemble focused largely on group improvisation with the horns employing what I'll euphemistically call extended technique (often known as "free jazz") and vocal chants, while also occasionally exploring studio effects (largely courtesy of drummer/engineer Bugs Hunter) and exotic instruments. After a while the group began to catch on with various hippies and freaks, though not enough to pay the bills, and in 1968 the Arkestra relocated again, this time to Philadelphia.

The Futuristic Sounds Of Sun Ra (Sun Ra and his Arkestra: 1961)
So many different styles are tackled that the disc sounds like a compilation, though it was recorded in one session in October 1961, and the tunes are relatively short and punchy, making this a pretty good introduction to the Arkestra though the compositions aren't classic. "Of Sounds And Something Else" is pure swing, with a remarkably well-behaved horn section. "What's That" is a terrific uptempo tune, with a formidable Sun Ra piano solo, though alas, the cluttered version of "Tapestry From An Asteroid" pales before the version on We Travel The Spaceways. "Where Is Tomorrow" mixes full-band jazz with a flute-and-percussion break; "The Beginning" and "New Day" are unadulterated "free" vamps plus percussion. "China Gates" manages to sum up pre-synth Sun Ra in three minutes: ethereal percussion opens and closes, while in between there's a spirited piano meditation accompanying a vocal recitation. Also released as We Are In The Future. (DBW)

Bad And Beautiful (Mr. Sun Ra and his Arkestra: 1961)
Of the Ra albums I've heard, this is by far the easiest to get into, and the only one I can recommend unreservedly. Attrition had brought the Arkestra down to a sextet, leaving more room for Ra's piano (the driving "Ankh") and the three remaining horns (all saxophones). When Marshall Allen isn't on sax, he's playing gorgeous piercing flute lines (in harmony with Gilmore on "The Bad And The Beautiful"). The one percussion showcase is rousing and joyful, with Ra adding Monk-like brittle accents ("Exotic Two"). There are some standards ("Just In Time") and some fine originals ("Search Light Blues"). This is just one side of Sun Ra, but if you're queasy about the space synth, screechy saxes and all the chanting, start here. (DBW)

Art Forms For Dimensions Tomorrow (Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra: rec. 1961-2, rel. 1965)
A mix of styles, none of which come across particularly well. I think the themeless "Cluster Of Galaxies" is the first of engineer Bugs Hunter's Echo Obsession Records. I wonder if this stuff inspired Jimi Hendrix's tone paintings? Anyway, there's nothing I really like here, as "Ankh" and "Lights On A Satellite" are better heard on previous records and the centerpieces "Infinity Of The Universe" and "Kosmos In Blue" lack focus, drifting through percussive vamps and squawking solos. (DBW)

When Sun Comes Out (Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra: 1963)
By now Ra had become so enraptured with bongos and other percussion that on several tunes there's almost nothing happening but aimless thumping ("Brazilian Sun," "Circe" featuring an operatic vocal improv from Theda Barbara). When the horns finally play they're in screech mode (Patrick's earsplitting, random solo on "Calling Planet Earth"). But there are bright spots: the version of "We Travel The Spaceways" is a lot more authoritative than the 1960 recording, and guest trumpeter Walter Miller (not the Home Page guy) adds zippy bebop soloing to the title tune. (DBW)

When Angels Speak Of Love (Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra: rec. 1963, rel. 1966)
Another mishmash of percussion-heavy shriek sessions ("Ecstasy Of Being") and collective improvisation that, while still rambunctious, has enough structure to register as musical ("The Idea Of It All," with the leader on piano). At nearly eighteen minutes, "Next Stop Mars" is the longest track the Arkestra had released up to this time - like many of Sun Ra's later long-form works (and, not coincidentally, several of Trane's), it opens with chanting before the corybantic horns take off. (DBW)

Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy (Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra: rec. 1963, rel. 1967)
The craziness often works here: engineer Bugs Hunter plays the echo effect like an instrument, fading it in and out and up and down throughout the disc. "Voice Of Space" and "Thither And Yon" are the two landmark tracks, as "Voice" shades from squealing alto sax (from Danny Davis) to impossibly high bowed bass (Boykins) while percussion comes and goes... it winds up an improbably dignified, controlled statement. "Thither" is so far out I can't even quantify why the overall effect is moving rather than just silly. But you live by the sword, you die similarly, and there's some dying goin' on in "Adventure-Equation" - an uninvolving Gilmore bass clarinet showpiece - and the sloppy vamp "Moon Dance." (DBW)

The Heliotropic Worlds Of Sun Ra, Volume 1 (Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra: 1965)
Even farther into free jazz territory, with no stated theme, lots of upper register shrieking from the saxes, and everybody doing their own thing on percussion ("Heliocentric"). "Outer Nothingness" literally sounds like a charging herd of elephants, and is that something you actually want to hear? Also, the stop-start approach on many numbers prevents any momentum from building. The gorgeous, low-key "Nebulae" - with Ra on celeste - is the only cut on the record I actually enjoy; "The Cosmos" also has its moments, with nice sax and bowed bass solos. (DBW)

The Heliotropic Worlds Of Sun Ra, Volume 2 (Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra: 1965)
Lengthy improvisation on the opening and closing numbers (more serial soloing "The Sun Myth" and more collective bleating on the well-named "Cosmic Chaos"), with alternating sections of percussion madness, wide open space, and blaring brass. Ra plays clavioline in addition to piano, and the effect is rather cheesy but at least it's something different. The short middle cut "A House of Beauty" does have a spacey, ethereal charm. Re-released in 1984 as The Sun Myth. (DBW)

Atlantis (Sun Ra and his Astro Infinity Arkestra: 1967)
If you added a couple of electric guitars, this would be psychedelic hippie drivel: rudimentary midtempo vamps, random keyboard soloing, poorly recorded and aimlessly banged percussion. Ra's playing a clavinet on "Mu" and "Lemuria," but it doesn't make much difference. The title track runs over twenty minutes: the first two thirds is an effects-drenched organ improvisation that doesn't add up to anything, and just when you think you're going to die from boredom the horns and drums come in and pump up the volume, if nothing else. Both Saturn and Impulse versions of the LP contain a track called "Yucatan," but they're different compositions: the Impulse cut has much more forceful - though incredibly repetitive - percussion. (DBW)


In 1968, Sun Ra acquired a permanent base of operations in Philadelphia (a house purchased from Marshall Allen's father for $1), and the band was able to rehearse around the clock. Musically the Arkestra increasingly focused on the collective squawking and chanting, while Ra integrated a variety of synthesizers into the proceedings. My impression is that the group became most popular as a live act during this period, and there are many, many live recordings from the 70s and early 80s which I haven't heard. Also Saturn Records set up a distribution deal with Impulse in the early 70s, and though more music was lost in the shuffle than actually released, it did make at least some material relatively easy to find.

My Brother The Wind Volume II (Sun Ra and his Astro Infinity Arkestra: 1971)
One side of melodic, fairly normative big band material from 1969 ("Pleasant Twilight"); June Tyson adds vocals on a couple of tracks ("Walking On The Moon," no relation to the Police song). The other side is blessedly brief Moog experiments by the leader, unaccompanied, in 1970. Apparently the Evidence CD re-issue (which I have) has the A and B sides reversed from the original LP. (DBW)

Soundtrack To The Film Space Is The Place (Sun Ra and the Intergalactic Myth-Science Solar Arkestra: 1972)
I don't have this; I'm listing it only to avoid confusion with the next, similarly-titled release. (DBW)

Space Is The Place (Sun Ra: 1973)
Another side-long title track, and though it's a hundred times better than "Atlantis" - there's a bass line, enthusiastic chanting, and some horn improvisation - it's still not as engaging as directly comparable efforts like Trane's Om. Ra's synth playing is mostly limited to playing squiggly rising tones, which gets really annoying after a while ("Rocket Number Nine"). "Images" isn't too different from the original late 50s recording, straight jazz with Ra back on piano, though the reeds are more discordant. The gem is "Discipline 33," a subtle, twisting mood piece with Ra on organ, twin bass clarinets, and a moving sax solo, so naturally Ra follows it up with a totally cacophonous noisefest ("Sea Of Sounds"). I'm rating this higher than I otherwise might because it's the best I've heard from the late 60s/early 70s period. (DBW)

Friendly Love (Sun Ra and some freakin' Arkestra: rec. 1973, rel. 2000)
This was given a Saturn catalog number and offered to Impulse soon after recording, but wasn't released until the Evidence CD issue on a twofer with Pathways To Unknown Worlds. With no bass and little percussion, the mood is relatively calm for Ra's guided improvisation: the concluding "Friendly Love IV" has a gentle theme and a calming groove, and "Friendly Love II," with Ra on organ and synth (making its only appearance in the session) is almost as quiet. So on balance the record is less irritating than other free-jazz Ra, but by the same token not as arresting.(DBW)

Pathways To Unknown Worlds (Sun Ra and his Astro Infinity Arkestra: rec. 1973, rel. 1975)
More earsplitting free jazz, with Eloe Omoe featured on bass clarinet ("Extension Out"). The title track never really gets going: for twelve minutes, it sounds like an orchestra trying not too successfully to tune up. Sun Ra mostly confines himself to playing rising tones (as on Space Is), and Gilmore's sax is only heard on the scattershot "Cosmo-Media." Throughout, the best feature is Boykins on bass, but that's unlikely to sustain your interest. The CD release includes an unreleased track ("Untitled") in the same low-energy mold as the title cut. (DBW)

Concert For The Comet Kohoutek (The Intergalactic Sun Ra: rec. 1973, rel. 2006)
A live show featuring several short vocal pieces and a few lengthy instrumentals, mostly new though "Space Is The Place" was already a staple. Roughly speaking, the Arkestra (uncredited) uses group vocals to convey the narrative ("Journey Through The Outer Darkness"), individual solos as parenthetical (concurring or dissenting) statements, and bursts of group din - of the "herd of charging elephants" variety - as punctuation. The three approaches work better when blended in this manner than I've heard them previously in other contexts, and for me the result is more impartful and rewarding than the other late Sun Ra I've heard. Also, Sun Ra gets more intriguing noises out of his keyboards ("Unknown Kohoutek"). Were I feeling ungenerous, though, I could point out that some of the themes are very familiar: "Discipline" recalls "All Blues," while "Variations Of Kohoutek Theme" is a slight modification of "Acknowledgement." (DBW)

Lanquidity (1978)
Bitches Brew style fusion, sort of... Slow burning pieces with electric piano that are laid back but not calm. (DBW)

God Is More Than Love Could Ever Be (Sun Ra Trio: 1979)
A piano trio record, with five songs not otherwise recorded. (DBW)

A Fireside Chat With Lucifer (1984)

Late Period

I'm not altogether clear on this, but I believe at some point in the 80s Sun Ra put traditional jazz back into the act, while continuing to perform the more outré material. (I did see the Arkestra at Sweet Basil in 1989 and I recall it being largely tonal. I also remember the bassist playing a lengthy alto sax solo but I may have dreamed that.) Naturally the vagaries of distribution meant that a music buyer looking into Sun Ra at the time was most likely to come across a CD of Disney tunes or something and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Blue Delight (1987)

Hours After (1989)

Second Star To The Right (Salute To Walt Disney) (rec. 1989, rel. 1995)
What, you thought I was kidding about that? (DBW)

Mayan Temples (1990)

Purple Night (1990)
One standard ("Stars Fell On Alabama") but mostly originals. (DBW)

Pleiades (Sun Ra and his Arkestra with Symphony Orchestra: 1990)
Recorded in October 1990 with a symphony orchestra (including a version of Chopin's "Prelude #7 in A Major). (DBW)

At The Village Vanguard (Sun Ra Sextet: 1991)
Ra suffered a stroke in late 1990, and while he was recuperating John Gilmore booked a quintet gig in November 1991. Sun Ra made the show and it turned into a sextet performance (the only time Ra recorded with another pianist, I believe). (DBW)

Destination Unknown (Sun Ra and his Onmiverse Arkestra: 1992)
The last known recording of the Arkestra is a live show recorded in Switzerland. The set list is not unusual for this phase, with Ellington's "Prelude To A Kiss" and Gershwin's "S'Wonderful" plus Ra classics like "Calling Planet Earth" "Theme Of The Stargazers" and the closer "We Travel The Spaceways." (I saw the very end of a subsequent Arkestra performance in Central Park - I got there late because I'd assumed Sonic Youth would be opening for Sun Ra, not the other way around.) (DBW)

A Tribute To Stuff Smith (Billy Bang: 1993)
Ra's final terrestrial recordings include a version of "Deep Purple," which he had recorded with Smith back in 1948. (DBW)

Calling Planet Earth

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