Sun Ra - Singles : The Definitive 45s Collection

by Rob Taylor Rating:8 Release Date:2016-11-25

The prodigious Sun Ra (aka Hermann Blount) has attracted a lot of peer and record company reviews in recent times, with Gilles Peterson’s anthology, To Those of Earth and Other Worlds, and Marshall Allen’s selection In the Orbit of Ra, both excellent primers for those unfamiliar with Sun Ra’s varied career. Now we have Strut’s compilation, Singles.

These tracks were in fact released as 45 RPM records, however calling them 'singles' is a bit like calling a Richard Wagner anthology his “Pop Music Odyssey”. The earlier Sun Ra singles did follow in the short-form be-bop and swing traditions, an example of the former being ‘Super Blonde’ and the latter ‘Call For All Demons’ on this collection. Or for a wonderful exposition of both try ‘Medicine for a Nightmare’, for example. ‘I’m Making Believe’ is lovely old-fashioned supper club jazz.

The latter singles are altogether weirder and throw traditional forms of jazz out the window.

Sun Ra was a man with immense talent. As a child in Alabama (no, he didn’t beam in from Saturn) he saw the likes of Duke Ellington playing live, and afterwards could capably produce full transcriptions of what he had heard, as Mozart had done as a child.  Having been born in 1914 and dying in the 1990s, he lived through big band jazz, blues, swing, be-bop, crooner jazz, the new spiritual avant-garde of the 1960s, and jazz fusion in its myriad forms. Apart from latter two, these influences can be heard on the Singles Collection (covering the period 1952-1961), with only Disc 3 given over to his more idiosyncratic and modernist excursions. You know, the ones that every cosmic jazz wannabe now claims as a great influence over their work.

For all those rock and pop fans with jazz anaemia, the later works are probably going to be of the most interest. Here, you get less in the way of chordal progression, more in the way of themes with a modal centre (modal jazz), some weird cosmic sound affects, (see i.e ‘The Perfect Man’), and semi-intelligible rants about astral travel.

Some of the tracks explore atonalism as well. On ‘The Bridge’ the squawks of the saxophone are merely a platform of Sun Ra’s partially incoherent astrological poetry. ‘Nuclear War’ demonstrates that Sun Ra was also capable of more human concerns.

It really is pointless trying to define Sun Ra for the uninitiated. The music here cannot be compartmentalised under the ‘cosmic-jazz’ banner. Singles demonstrates that Sun Ra was steeped in jazz tradition. Sun Ra's personality, in particular his eccentricities, come to the fore as time passes, but this cannot be a man without his faculties because the music is so brilliantly conceived.  

Great compilation.   

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