by Rob Taylor Rating:10 Release Date:2014-09-22

Sun Ra claimed he was not of this world but of the Angel Race from Saturn. He is said to have denounced his human origins, and human birth. I can find no record of this eccentricity being anything other than new world philosophy, probably amplifying the mysterious fourth dimension status which record companies of bygone eras assumed appealed to hipsters, but in these, ahem, enlightened days would be probably seen as no more than capricious artifice. The closest reference point I can think of for sheer idiosyncrac is George Clinton.


Marketing Sun Ra and his Arkestra to a new generation, even one of open-minded Soundblab listeners is a challenge which should rely more on an appraisal of the finer aspects of his music, and less on understanding his new age eccentricities. Sun Ra’s music can loosely, but sensibly, be categorised as jazz, but with this compilation, Strut would prefer that listeners put aside any prejudices they have against jazz purism, and open their ears to a music which, at least in my view, has already become subtly embedded in the consciousness of devotees of the leftfield mixing of genre hoppers like DJ Shadow, DJ Spooky, and Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden.


Strut have placed their faith with this compilation in a new generation of untainted ears, that is, untainted by the occasionally academic and elitist expositions which accompanied reviews of jazz as an artform. Great music transcends genres, and it seems timely, given that we are all now so attuned to boundary overlaps, to celebrate Sun Ra’s music as inspirational art, music that pushes the envelope.  


The compilation commences with ‘Somewhere in Space’ and ‘The Lady with the Golden Stockings’, both bebop showpieces which sit comfortably alongside Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. Things progress in a mostly chronological order, the musical conceptions becoming more experimental and less conventional, although ‘Plutonian Nights’ sounds as cool as a Sonny Clark strut (no pun), or a Henry Mancini soundtrack. ‘Spontaneous Simplicity’ has an easy piano rhythm that sounds like an exotic blend of Red Garland and Thelonious Monk.


Those familiar with John Coltrane’s experimental leanings with Impulse in the late 60s will find ‘Angels and Demons at Play’ rhythmically and compositionally familiar, with its cross-sticking drumming keeping a steady pulse throughout. Gilmore’s sax squawks with atonal venom on ‘Rocket Number Nine’ before a slightly ornery bass solo ascends with classical accuracy towards a resolute but sharp piano closure, and a choral invocation with the lyric ‘Second Stop at Jupiter’.


For the remainder of side one, things get decidedly weird and quite compelling. ‘Solar Differentials’ sums up the asymmetrical plane - it sounds like the outro to French film noir if events turned decidedly black.   


If side one showed a easy coalescence with the great jazz artists of the 50s and 60s, side two is so flipping leftfield that you might mistake Sun Ra’s affirmations of life in the outer world as more akin to insanity. 'Astro Black' is painfully difficult to listen to in the beginning but somehow breaks free into great and even inspiring ensemble. The sinewy percussion of live track ‘Dance of the Cosmo Aliens’ plays left-and-right-field stereo in a deliberate manipulation of your senses, the keyboards a dirge ascending in volume, part laying down the rhythm, and part dark template for a stimulating if not unnerving experience.


Further live track ‘Trying to Put the Blame on Me’ is a welcome interlude with a more customary song structure. ‘Planet Earth’ has a classical structure more like a Fela Kuti composition. ‘The Nile’ is evocative of that place, and is a beautiful track with overlying woodwinds and African drums. ‘Ancient Ethiopia’ is a staggeringly great calling forth of traditional african rhythms.


Words cannot describe what a towering giant of music Sun Ra was, and this multi-label compilation is a stupendous introduction to his transcendent body of music.

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