For much of his life, Sun Ra lived in a Philadelphia brownstone. His name was listed in the phone book under "Ra, Sun." In a photo taken in front of his brownstone, he looks like any other middle-aged man standing in front of his home: Somewhat proudly, he stares into the distance as a couple of teenagers sit on a stoop behind him. He looks like a bus driver.
Except that his name is Sun Ra. And he's wearing a weird sparkly synthetic shirt, one that no stylish -- or sane -- Joe would be caught dead wearing, even in the early '70s. And the belly, obvious beneath the space shirt, is the result of eating too much of a specific kind of stew -- moon stew. And in the photo, he doesn't seem to be standing in front of his brownstone -- the backdrop is inconsequential -- or smiling into the camera or mugging for posterity. He's got a million-mile stare. He's gazing at Venus, or a quasar, or the daytime moon. He seems to be simultaneously looking far into the future, far into the past and deep into the present.
A handful of artists in the American music pantheon seem so magnetic, so out-there and mysterious, that we can't help, on some level, but be drawn to them: Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, George Clinton, Dylan, Coltrane, John Cage, Prince, Iggy, Patti. These are people who seem to exist outside time, who by sheer vision, genetic mutation or blind determination (usually a combination of all three), have striven to discover their voices, wherever they were buried, and in the process became such unique characters that they nearly transcended their own humanity to become visions. Sun Ra is way up there at the top; less concerned with reaching millions than with getting what was in there out, he recorded and released more than 100 records -- many on his vanity label, Saturn -- and over the past decade these have gradually begun being reissued, mainly by a label out of Philadelphia called Evidence. The label has just dropped five more reissues, most from the fruitful period of the '70s.
At the beginning of Sun Ra's ascendance in the '50s, he and his big band, aptly called the Arkestra, played postbop jazz and did it quite well. He never punched a hole in the ozone with this work, never achieved the kind of transcendence that Coltrane and Miles achieved at the same time, never rewrote the rules of the game. Ra was also playing and releasing weird, grimy R&B singles on Saturn (showcased on the perfect double-CD collection The Singles). As the '60s progressed, Sun Ra and his band (which included, among others, one of the unsung tenor-sax greats, John Gilmore) gravitated toward free jazz but seemed to take the phrase "free jazz" not as a descriptive but as a statement of intent, as in "I plan to free jazz from this mortal coil." Intentionally unburdened by the marketplace, Sun Ra and his Arkestra were free to follow their muse, and the recordings of this time, however inconsistent and unpredictable, were always joyfully adventurous. He was one of the first jazz musicians to experiment with electronics, and on the best of these reissues, he employs them in a manner that's both playful and curious.
The recent reissues span 15 of Sun Ra's most intriguing years, from 1963 (When Angels Speak of Love) to four (!) records recorded in 1973 and released as two-fers (The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums consists of Cymbals and Crystal Spears; the other consists of Pathways to Unknown Worlds and Friendly Love) to 1978's best-of-the-bunch Lanquidity to the awkwardly titled (and, we hope, ironic) Greatest Hits, collecting music from throughout Ra's career. Taken together, the reissues illustrate not only his mastery of experimentation but also, more important, Sun Ra's ability to transcend his experimentation and land on stunning emotional planes.
You can hear it best on two of these releases, the Pathways/Friendly Love double and, most definitely, Lanquidity, both necessary additions not just to Sun Ra completists but to anyone curious about jazz in the '70s, arguably the last great decade for recorded jazz.
A glimpse at the instrumentation on Pathways provides a clue to the where the Arkestra was existing in 1973: Mini-Moog synthesizer, electronic vibes, mellophone, space-dimension mellophone and ancient Egyptian infinity drum are some of the more curious ingredients, in addition to the more standard tenor, alto and baritone saxophones, trumpet, oboe, bass clarinet, percussion and congas. Pathways' title track is an electrifying free-improv workout on which Ra, his Mini-Moog set to one weird sound, hits it over and over again. He uses the same sound on the next track, a sort of deep tornado call. From there, chaos reigns, but it's a beautiful chaos, played by 12 musicians with a strong musical connection. This connection stretches throughout the sessions, and Sun Ra, in love with that crazy Moog, blurts it throughout. The release is a difficult listen for those not down with free jazz -- it's at times loud and always unwieldy, but Sun Ra captures beauty throughout.
"There are other worlds they have not told you of," whispers a chorus of voices deep inside Lanquidity, the best of these releases and one of Sun Ra's high points. A combination of improvised and obviously composed pieces, the record, taken as a whole, illustrates Ra's strengths: a love of improvisation, weird gizmos and experimentation but also an appreciation of dynamics and rock-solid composition. The improvised pieces vary in mood from somber to celebratory, and the composed pieces, especially the totally funky "Where Pathways Meet," weigh a ton. But, in typical Ra fashion, the entirety sounds a bit off, a bit dizzy; like cigarette smoke in a sunbeam, Lanquidity is both chaotic and smooth, and the result is the kind of cohesion that Sun Ra tended to avoid, at least on many of the other of these reissues. When he addressed cohesion, he attacked it with a vigor similar to that with which he attacked that Moog.
Because of Sun Ra's need to document so much of his music, it's going to take decades to fully comprehend the body of work he left behind. Occasionally, though, one of these reissues arrives that adds to the mystique but, because of the sheer volume, is in danger of being buried. Lanquidity is one such recording, nearly perfect, necessary for anyone curious about jazz. "Earth is an unlikely place for me to be in the first place," Sun Ra once said, and on Lanquidity, he's not on Earth: He's way, way out there, where he belongs.