If ever there were an artist in need of a "where do you start" type guide, it's Sun Ra. The legendary and mysterious jazz figure has been claimed as an influence by diverse artists from the Stooges and MC5 to Sonic Youth and Phish. He even popped up on MTV in the early 90s. So many folks who would otherwise never venture into the jazz section might be tempted to check this cat out. But what do you do when you get there? There are literally hundreds of releases by Sun Ra and his Arkestra. During his lifetime he released albums independently on his own Saturn label but also put out material on a variety of other labels. There have been numerous live recordings that have cropped up throughout the years, many being released after Sun Ra's death in 1993. And then there's the wide variety of music that Sun Ra composed and performed, ranging from traditional big band to early experiments with electronics and avant-garde works. Even someone well versed in jazz and/or experimental music can get intimidated by it all. Did I mention Sun Ra claimed to be a visitor from Saturn?
Recently, Strut Records has attempted to create a few entry points with compilations chosen by Ra associates and acolytes. Last year gave us In the Orbit of Ra hand-picked by longtime sideman Marshall Allen, who still leads the Arkestra to this day. Earlier this year came To Those of Earth...and Other Worlds, compiled by longtime BBC DJ and musicologist Gilles Peterson. I'd like to talk to you about my own first Ra purchase. I wanted to listen to Sun Ra but was clueless about where to start when I stumbled upon a compilation called Music Futurists that was put out by Wired magazine and Rhino Records. It had a bunch of artists I already liked, like Devo, Can, and Brian Eno, and had a Sun Ra track called "Plutonian Nights." I liked that track enough to seek out the album it came from, The Nubians of Plutonia. The CD release combined that album with another,Angels and Demons at Play. Evidence Records, primarily a blues label, released about 20 albums from the Saturn catalog on CD in the early 90s, many of them two albums on one disc.
Now I'd like to make clear that I am certainly no expert on jazz and can't really talk about the music in an academic or theoretical context. I can just tell you what I like - and I like all the music on this CD. The Angels and Demons album actually covers two separate recording sessions from 1956 and 1960. The first four tracks are from 1960 and are somewhat mellow but also show the Afro-centrist influence that has always been a part of the Sun Ra experience. The next four tracks, from 1956, are more traditional big band jazz, played with energy and joy. The remaining tracks are the Nubians album and show the beginnings of Ra and the Arkestra delving into African music and culture. This is particularly apparent on extended numbers like "Nubia" and "Aiethopia." I liked this album enough to dive into other Evidence releases, some covering a similar time period, like Super Sonic Jazz, and others from much later like 1978's Lanquidity. There are still many more miles to go on my trek through the Sun Ra universe but the Angels/Nubians twofer is where my journey began. Maybe it will be yours as well.
- Adam Reshotko