Well, I seem to have started one of my periodic Sun Ra jags - digging out album after album and reminding myself of how incredible this music is. The first Sun Ra album I bought was the Impulse reissue of The Magic City, from 1965. I don't know exactly how old I was, but I think that I was still a teenager. It got to me right away. I knew I was listening to another way of making music than I had experienced before - the music was based on a different aesthetic.
There are plenty of reason why a discerning listener might not like the music of Sun Ra. His music often has a campy, showbiz flavor - albeit from a pretty bizarre angle. His rhythm (and that of his ensembles) is sometimes lumpy/clunky. At times the sections of his large bands played with poor intonation and blend, making the listener wonder what went on at those legendary hours-long rehearsals. And his keyboard style, although it revealed formidable technique, was often offbeat and skittery.
But the impact of Sun Ra's music defies rational criticism. It's more than the sum of it's parts, and that's due to Ra's vision. The music is unusual, deep, accomplished, amateurish, serious, and campy - sometimes all at the same time.
The scope of Ra's recorded output is vast and somewhat baffling. Although he made albums for others, most of his records came out on his own label, Saturn (with its Thoth Intergalactic and Repeto subsidiaries). The release strategy and documentation Ra employed were unusual, to say the least. As I write this, Sound Sun Pleasure!! is playing in the CD player. This album of mostly standards was recorded in 1958, but not released until 1970, when the Sun Ra Arkestra (as he called his band) was playing a completely different style. It must have thoroughly confused those who bought the album at his concerts - the main distribution method for Saturn releases. Furthermore, the personnel list on the back of the album is bogus - Ra just listed a bunch of musicians that were in his band at the time the record was released, most of whom weren't playing with him in 1958. And the version of "Enlightenment" on this album had already been released (in a slightly different mix) on Jazz in Silhouette. This kind of discographical chaos is par for the course for Ra and Saturn - some pressings even paired side one of an album with side two of another.
The almost 850 pages of Robert Campbell and Christopher Trent's The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (2nd edition) make sense of this mess. It's a remarkable book, given the daunting task of sorting out Ra's recordings. I wish it had been around during that brief period in the early 1980s when Rounder Records distributed the Saturn label. One evening I walked into a suburban Atlanta record store and found that the jazz section had a dozen or so Saturn releases with hand-decorated covers. I didn't know much about the Saturn catalog at the time and was confused and uncertain about which records to get, so I walked out without buying anything. I wish I had just grabbed a few at random - they are all rare collector's items today.
What accounts for the impact of Sun Ra's music? Well, for one thing, it is often probing and forward-looking - music "on the edge," as Steve Lacy put it. Ra was a musical explorer who continually tried to push his musicians and himself into unknown territories. As early as 1955, an obscure piece called "Piano Interlude" (eventually released on Deep Purple and on the Evidence reissue of Sound Sun Pleasure!!) reveals a searching, advanced musical imagination, unlike any other in jazz. The piece is built on quartal harmony (chords built on fourths rather than thirds) at first, but flirts more and more with pantonality and atonality as it progresses. Not many jazz musicians were exploring this territory in 1955 - Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor come to mind, but Ra has his own voice and doesn't sound like either of them.
Sun Ra frequently wrote modal pieces in the 1950s - several years before Kind of Blue brought modalism to the forefront of jazz development. By the middle of the 1960s, Ra was creating music completely devoid of tonal center and metered rhythm. Others were doing the same (Cecil Taylor again comes to mind, as does Albert Ayler), but Ra's music is once again very different. Most so-called "free jazz" is still recognizable as jazz because it retains the intensity and forward motion of jazz. But The Magic City and Heliocentric Worlds are different - sounds drift in and out of focus; instruments combine and diverge; the speed and intensity of the music changes frequently. Much of the music from this period can be seen more as the presentation of a kaleidoscopic series of events than of a linear narrative. In that sense it has more in common with Stockhausen or Varese than with conventional jazz.
Ra was also "on the edge" with his use of electronics. He experimented with the Solovox, an early, monophonic electric keyboard, before 1950. He was an early adopter of the Wurlitzer electric piano - hear his 1956 solo piece "Advice to Medics," about which his longtime tenor saxophonist John Gilmore said, "There was a period when, if I was not practicing, I would be listening to that song. There's so much beauty and thought in there." In the mid 1960s he was using instruments like the Rocksicord and Clavioline, and by the end of the decade he had somehow gotten hold of one of the first Moog synthesizers. He seems to have instantly grasped the latter instrument's strengths and limitations; the five solo Moog pieces on My Brother the Wind, Volume II are a beautiful summary of the Moog's possiblities.
But at the same time, Ra kept one foot firmly planted in the music's heritage. Even during his most extreme period, much of his music was intended to swing in a conventional jazz sense, and he never totally abandoned standards as source material. Beginning in the 1970s, he revisited the repertoire of Fletcher Henderson, for whom he did some arranging in Chicago 30 years earlier. For the rest of his career, "Big John's Special," "Queer Notions," and "Can You Take It" frequently showed up in his concerts.
I haven't heard all of Sun Ra's recorded output, and I doubt that few, if any folks have heard it all. But I've heard a lot of it, including most of what are considered his "major" works. One of the striking things about this body of work is that no two albums, even no two pieces, sound alike. Music of great complexity, music of utter simplicity, carefully composed pieces, totally improvised pieces, large bands, small ensembles - they all exist side by side in Ra's world. Of the vast omniverse of Sun Ra's recordings, here are half a dozen of my favorites:
Interstellar Low Ways (also known as Rocket Number Nine Take Off For the Planet Venus (1959/1960) - My favorite early Sun Ra, with gorgeous pieces like "Interstellar Low Ways" and "Space Loneliness" alongside the cool/campy "Interplanetary Music" and "Rocket Number Nine Take Off For the Planet Venus." The latter tune has a tenor solo by John Gilmore that was ahead of its time and which justifies Coltrane's interest in Gilmore during this period.
The Magic City (1965) - The title cut takes up all of side one of the vinyl album - it's monumental and mysterious. The other side contains an early version of the intense "The Shadow World," a piece Ra recorded several times and played from the early sixties to the end of his career. Atlantis and Heliocentric Worlds (Volumes 1 & 2) cover similar ground and are equally fine.
My Brother the Wind, Volume II (1969/1970) - Half prescient synthesizer etudes; half swinging organ-based jazz.
Disco 3000 (1978) - From an Italian tour with a quartet - John Gilmore, Michael Ray on trumpet, and Luqman Ali on drums. Ra was using a Crumar keyboard with a built-in drum machine and programmable bass lines; he used it to create incredible swirls of sound over intense rhythms.
A Fireside Chat With Lucifer (1982) - This album contains the first appearance of the swing/funk anthem "Nuclear War," as well as some free improvisations that can only be described as eloquent. Good luck finding this one - it's never been reissued, although "Nuclear War" has appeared on other albums.
Mayan Temples (1990) - An excellent latter-day recital from Ra, with atonal improvisations, pop standards, modal exotica, and Ra classics like "El is a Sound of Joy."
There's so much more to write/talk about with Sun Ra - the incredible musicians like John Gilmore and Marshall Allen who played with him for years, his poetry, his apprenticeship years, his adoption of Disney songs into his repertoire late in life. But what about the whole outer space thing - did he really believe that he was sent to earth from outer space to save the planet through music, or was it just a showbiz act? He sang, "I know that I'm a member of the angel race; my home is somewhere there out in outer space." My feeling is that it was an act that became more and more real to him as the years passed.
In any case, exploring Ra's music is like traveling through a spiral galaxy. The deeper you get into it, the more you learn. You "see" the music from different angles and grasp more and more of it, although you realize that you'll never totally have a handle on it. But it's a great journey.