In My Music I Speak of Impossible Things. I’m Just Like the Birds. They Sing.
Occasionally, you may get a couple records by a Space Prophet that seems like he independently emerged from the tapestry of cosmos by way of ancient Memphis. In his hand he carried a passport from Saturn, and managed to assemble the most killer band. A bop Ziggy Stardust. And the records come in “Solar High Fidelity.” Naturally, when you find a new Sun Ra & his Arkestra record there are plenty of reasons to get pretty jacked.
Sun Ra started his label El Saturn as a vehicle to release, well, whatever tapes he had on him at the time – to the consternation of many. John Zwed, in his book Space is the Place, details just how difficult it was to get a hold of one of theses records, especially from the label themselves. By 1971, they were suggesting you give a list of five alternatives when trying to buy just one.
Until recently, its been difficult to find a copy of early Sun Ra & his Arkestra records. If you were lucky enough to track them down, they’d often be mis-titled, or completely reconstructed.
His immense catalog is made up of rehearsals, studio alternates, finished takes, and live gigs, all stitched together. As Zwed points out, at the time when engineers were aiming create a sense of intimacy by restricting the presence of the studio, Sun Ra & his Akrestra were acknowledging it. Interestingly, this may have been Sun Ra at his most prophetic. Now, most music is made that way.
While El Saturn has become a subsidiary of Universal Music, they are restoring and re-releasing most of the Arkestra’s material in, what essentially amounts to, the future. That should not be taken for granted. For most of the 20th century these recordings remained in obscurity, rescued in the early 1990’s predominantly by the independent Evidence label.
Classics, like Jazz in Silhouette or The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra, are subdued but major statements. Era defining albums like those rarely come from left field. And just so, El Saturn got its start with the album Super-Sonic Jazz.
The subtitle specifies “21st century edition” – playing into the same mid-century pop-futurism that so much of Sun Ra’s aesthetic draws from. There is cohesion to the record. If Super-Sonic Jazz comprises the same scattering of rehearsals and outtakes typical of the label/band’s early releases it doesn’t matter. As stated on the back of the album, “This is the music of greater transition, to the invisible irresistible space age.”
The Arkestra’s avant-garde leanings are firmly established on the opening ‘India’, layered with bouncing percussion and littered with off-kilter harmonies, punctuated by textured electric piano riffs. Like Martin Denny on an interstellar journey. But there’s a swinging gravitas to the Arkestra that many of their cosmic contemporaries lack. In their own words “These compositions are designed to convey … a living message from the better world of tomorrow … a free language of joy.”
As the album unfolds, Sun Ra‘s unique blend of swing, bebop, and avant-garde coalesce. The first few seconds of ‘Super Blonde’ display Sun Ra’s bop virtuosity as a keyboardist. However, when 6 horns begin to toss melodies back and forth John Gilmore’s sax “Tells a happy story about a blonde who is just as super as someone else called super” – as the description accompanying the song title informs us. Super-Sonic Jazz sets foot in every solar system the Akrestra would explore. And firmly establishes that “The isolated earth age is finished.”
Released over a decade later, in 1967 and credited to Sun Ra & his Myth-Science Arkestra, We Travel the Space Ways hits its stride with the B-side opener ‘Space Loneliness.’ These recordings being assembled from 1956-1961, the Myth – Science Arkestra is predominantly the same cast of making up Super-Sonic Jazz, with the addition of “cosmic tone organ” and “cosmic bells.”
‘Interplanetary Music’ kicks the record off with some chant vocals that reappear in ‘We Travel the Space Ways’ and then consistently throughout the ’70’s. Using pretty much the same formula found on most of Sun Ra’s Chicago years, We Travel the Space Ways offers ‘New Horizons’ and insights into the wormholes they travel.
An early take of ‘Velvet’, the center of his masterpiece Jazz in Silhouette closes the album. Giving the listener a beautiful new perspective of one the Arkestra’s most moving compositions.
Ultimately, trying to gain a linear understanding of the music created by Sun Ra & his Arkestra may be a fool’s errand. It was linear understanding they were trying to subvert. We construct the past as we examine it, we create threads of ideas changing and label them development or regression. The Arkestra stands outside of this history, calling it into question. Sun Ra & his Arkestra made music for the future, not the past. That future has come.