Sun Ra might need little introduction to many readers of this blog, I’d expect, so I’ll keep this brief: Sun Ra was once Herman Blount from Alabama except that he was always Sun Ra from the planet Saturn. He was a jazz bandleader and visionary whose career spanned the ragtime and free jazz eras, during which he dove deep into the avant garde, forming a band (“Arkestra”) that was as much a commune as a musical group. His work touched heavily on, among many other things, African/Egyptian themes, outer space, Kabbalism, and Gnosticism. Ra’s music, lifestyle, beliefs and personality were far too esoteric for anything even remotely like mainstream acceptance to find him, but he nonetheless recorded prolifically, and brought a heavy influence to bear on psychedelia and funk. Just last year, he came to somewhat wider public attention when Lady Gaga heavily quoted his “Rocket Number 9” in her single “Venus.”
Sun Ra left us in 1993, but had he lived, 2014 would have been his 100th year. His still-living stalwart saxophonist Marshall Allen continues, at the age of 90, to lead the Arkestra, and he’s recently compiled a collection for Strut Records, spanning 25 years of Sun Ra Arkestra music, remastered from the original tapes, and it’s being touted as “the first internationally released compilation to provide an introduction to the music of Sun Ra.” It’s called In the Orbit of Ra, and the CD and digital are out this week. (Those of us who prefer vinyl apparently have to wait until October. Boo.) An admirable lid has been kept on its contents—only one remastered track is available for streaming, the late ‘50s composition “Plutonian Nights:”
This new mini-documentary features Allen and other Arkestra members’ reminiscences. It’s well worth making a little time for.
Previously on Dangerous Minds
‘The Black Man in the Cosmos:’ Sun Ra teaches at UC Berkeley, 1971
Sun Ra’s business cards: ‘Why buy old sounds?’
Sun Ra reads his poetry on WXPN Philadelphia, Christmas day 1976