Sun Ra departed this planet on May 30, 1993 but wherever he currently resides, his spirit continues to pervade contemporary jazz and influence musicians of various genres. Born Herman Blount in Birmingham on May 22, 1914, he changed his name to Le Sony'r Ra, shortened to Sun Ra, after the Egyptian sun god. He claimed to have come from Saturn to bring peace to the Earth. "His widely eclectic and avant-garde music echoed the entire history of jazz, from ragtime and early New Orleans hot jazz, to swing music, bebop, free jazz and fusion." (1) Indeed, Ra's music also anticipates New Age, Space Music, and has influenced rock musicians as well.
He began his career in Birmingham in a rather conventional manner, but at some point (dates vary from 1936 to 1952, depending on who is doing the telling) he asserted that he had been taken to Saturn where the Saturnians "talked to me. They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools... the world was going into complete chaos... I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That's what they told me." (2) Whatever the case, by the mid-1950s, Ra had formed his first Arkestra and began his unique musical journey, first in Chicago and later in New York City. The Arkestra had frequent personnel changes over the decades but Ra's vision and musical adventurousness never wavered. The Arkestra remains a powerful and inspirational musical force today under the leadership of 96-years-young Marshall Allen, who has been performing Sun Ra's and his own compositions for 64 years.
Ra's best known composition—and likely the first most listeners encountered—is probably "Space Is the Place," (3) which crossed over from jazz to rock radio and remains very popular today. DC Space, a much missed club in Washington, DC, known for its cutting edge shows, took its name from this song. It still sounds as fresh and vibrant today as it did in 1974.
A recent article in the New York Times, which inspired me to pen these reflections, detailed some of Sun Ra's history and musical and spiritual thinking. In addition, the piece showcased the still vibrant spirit that has remained and flourished in the nearly three decades since Ra's transition. "Even at 96, well into his sixth decade playing Ra's music, Mr. Allen continues to make discoveries. Sun Ra recorded virtually every rehearsal, leaving behind thousands of tapes. He has been listening back to them for years, and every so often he finds something remarkable." (4)
The same Times article led me to the Arkestra's most recent album, their first in over 20 year. Entitled Swirling, this collection of tunes demonstrates not only the continuing vitality and relevance of Sun Ra's music, but also the immense skill and intense creativity of the group's current lineup. As Giovanni Russonello puts it, "This far-ranging double-LP serves as a fabulous introduction for newcomers to the Arkestra's sonic universe, and an affirmation for old fans of how vital the band remains under the direction of the saxophonist Marshall Allen, who at 96 has devoted two-thirds of his life to playing Ra's music." (5)
Listen, for example, to the title track (6) with its stride-like piano intro leading into a horn-rich passage that manages to combine elements of swing, bebop and free jazz, and blues, underpinned by Monk-like piano riffs, followed by smooth and lush vocals by Tara Middleton that recall Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn. Or give an ear to "Sky Is a Sea of Darkness / Darkness" (7) which begins with voices chanting Ra's poetry and singing it in gospel style, then continues with the mélange of jazz and blues styles described above. Or "Seductive Fantasy," (8) a majestic composition that contains elements of Monk, Eric Dolphy, and Mingus—but note also the jaunty pennywhistle that floats above the other instruments, a whimsical touch that somehow enhances and adds giddy joy to the more serious elements of the piece. Best to cue up the album or CD or start streaming it and be taken to a place beyond here and now. As the maestro himself once said, "We work on the other side of time."
(2) Wikipedia, op cit.
(5) NY Times, op cit.