Punk as fuck – and possibly from Saturn (though, more likely one of its moons) – Sun Ra was one of the most gifted big-band composer, arranger, and band leaders of the “post-war era” or whatever.
Sun Ra and his Arkestra wanted to make one thing clear: they have traveled across the solar system to blow your freakin’ mind and you might as well move your hips while they’re at it.
Cook & Morton call their Chicago years masterpiece Jazz in Silhouette one of the greatest records since the war, awarding it their highest honor. Even Norman Mailer chose to chime in years down the line. Its seems, at least now, everybody wants to tell you about Sun Ra, though you’re hard pressed to find contemporary critical analysis of the brilliant music he was making in the ’50’s.
His cosmic jester from the Middle Kingdom aesthetic certainly didn’t help. Neither did using his own imprint to release most of his records. They were expressions of a profoundly unique musician. The [El] Saturn label the Arkestra used to release their limited edition hand illustrated albums is another example of the band being ahead of its time (or from outer-space). The downside was the music couldn’t hit a critical mass. Musicologists have to dig for information on when these tracks were even recorded. Much of what you’ll find has the album being released in ’58, while recently its been discovered it wasn’t recorded until March ’59.
Sun Ra can seem like a Brian Wilson. He was a skilled keyboardist, one of the first to bring electric keyboards and synths into the mess. It was his skill as a composer and arranger for his band, though, that tickle your mind-hips.
As the cannon of jazz styles and sounds evolved, Sun Ra never made his Arkestra pick one. He used them all, often within the space of a single composition. He knew when not to compose and how to let the collective improvisational skill of his band rip. He knew how talented the composers in his band were. The opening, and most lingering, track ‘Enlightenment‘ being contributed by trumpeter Hobart Dotson.
Ra wanted to engage his listeners completely. In his own words he wanted to “charm the mind”.On this collection, the Arkestra eschews the re-interpretation of standards they were known for during their formative years in Chicago and in their place we find originals so compelling you wonder why they weren’t immediately celebrated as standards.
The brilliantly orchestrated, ah hem Arkestrated, ‘Ancient Aiethopia‘ whose thematic melody reappears in a number of arrangements throughout the tune when least expected. The sublime nirvana inducing opener ‘Enlightenment’, contributed by trumpeter Hobart Dotson, eerily reminiscent of an era that never was. The tipsy after hours swing of ‘Hours After’ given hints of a modernity not yet achieved. All of them gorgeous, all of them brilliant, all of them displaying a firm grip of rhythmic and melodic development. Slowly revealing that the distinction between the two need not be made.
Sun Ra and his Arkestra wanted to free you. Not just from social oppression, preconceived notions of artistic merit, the structures and confines of jazz, or anything in particular. Freedom. Like his contemporaries in the free jazz movement who seemed to demand “this is only freedom” while implying freedom is discordant. Sun Ra wanted to free your mind, but your ass could follow. His freedom was harmony. And Ancient Egyptian headdresses.
The Arkestra, as the editor’s of Mojo’s Ultimate Music Companion put it, “[are] able to play in each other’s pockets even when they were navigating the most abstract sonic territory”.
There’s a little of that territory here. There’s a little of everything here. From the chant styled vocals they would use on 70’s classics, to the swing that they cut their teeth on in the 40’s. The only Sun Ra record you’ll ever need, but once its finished not the only one you’ll ever want.