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Sun Ra And His Arkestra
In The Orbit Of Ra Sean Kitching , October 7th, 2014 12:56

As one of the most prolific musicians to have ever lived (releasing over 150 albums, 180 of which can be found listed here), Sun Ra is an artist for whom compilations offer a necessary gateway for potential fans otherwise put off by the bewildering diversity of his recorded output. Many are already available –Greatest Hits: Easy Listening For Intergalactic Travel on Evidence, Out There A Minute put out by Blast First and Mute, and more recently the three disc A Space Odyssey: From Birmingham To The Big Apple on Fantastic Voyage Music, to name but three. For the centenary of Sun Ra's birth, Strut Records have joined forces with Art Yard to release a 20 track double album containing cuts all chosen by current band leader Marshall Allen, including the previously unreleased 'Trying To Put The Blame On Me', Part 1 of 'Reflects Motion' and an extended version of 'Island In The Sun'. Given both the tireless work that Marshall Allen has done promoting Sun Ra's music in the current live incarnation of the band, and the peerless quality of Art Yard's beautifully packaged re-releases of some of the more obscure Ra recordings, it's impossible to fault this collection's impeccable credentials. This compilation does a far better job of presenting the scope of Sun Ra's music than any other that has gone before. Due to remastering from the original tapes, the sound quality is also excellent throughout.

Part of the difficulty in presenting Sun Ra's music to newcomers lies in the managing of expectations given both Ra's reputation as a purveyor of far-out sounds and the enormously wide ranging genres with which he experimented. Hence a listener expecting full-on electronic avant-garde attack, might instead find big band or even small vocal group style music, depending on which album they happened upon. It's also a common misconception that Sun Ra's music is "free-jazz", when in fact discipline was his central tenet - lengthy rehearsals followed by lengthy performances, parts for individual instruments often written out. Yet Ra usually chose to deliberately throw a spanner of his own making into the proceedings by often deciding against playing the most recently rehearsed material at any given performance, changing arrangements at the last moment and also conducting freely improvised sections in between the meticulously rehearsed "disciplines". This meant that even when the band were playing relatively straighter big band tunes, arrangements remained flexible and had the potential to soar off in other directions. This kind of ease of mutability can be heard throughout all of Sun Ra's music and is essentially what makes it so unique, whatever genres any given track may straddle. Another aspect of Sun Ra's music which is often overlooked is the sheer joyousness that underpins it all. As long time friend of Sun Ra and director of Enterplanetary Koncepts, Haf-Fa Rool, said to me recently at one of the Arkestra's Cafe Oto shows: "What is it about this music? It just makes some people feel very happy".

The first CD sequences together 'Somewhere In Space' and 'The Lady With The Golden Stockings' - irresistibly kinetic, low-end rumbling exotica driven by loose, tribal drumming and pointillistic percussion taken from albums released in 1966 but recorded in 1959. Current live favourite 'Somebody Else's World' from 1970s My Brother The Wind, features vocalist June Tyson stating Ra's belief in the self-created nature of mythological reality. 'Plutonian Nights' brings in an ecstatic big-band swagger with wonderful tenor sax from the masterful John Gilmore. An extended version of the sublime, flute and percussion driven 'Island In the Sun' from 1974s The Invisible Shield stretches its trance inducing repetition to over ten minutes. 'Rocket Number Nine', the most covered of all of Sun Ra's tracks by artists as diverse as Yo La Tengo and Zombie Zombie, ratchets up the crazy quotient, soaring right off into space. 'Solar Differentials,' from 1965s Secrets Of The Sun, remains right out there, with its odd, echoey ambience and bizarre space vocals from Art Jenkins.

The second CD kicks off with the incredible 'Astro-Black', from the long out-of-print 1972 LP of the same name. A simple bass figure dances in and out of dense electronic sounds and conga beats courtesy of Stanley 'Atakatune' Morgan, while June Tyson eerily intones Ra's poetry, a clear statement of cosmic intent: "Astro black mythology/Astro timeless immortality/Astro thought in mystic sounds/Astro black of outer space". It's an incredible 11 minutes, replete with chaotic swathes of electronic sound from Ra's moog synthesiser and June Tyson erupting into wordless, ecstatic cosmic glossolalia. 'Have You Heard The Latest News From Neptune' is a gloriously lazy strut, its title refrain repeated chant-like over squealing brass and spacious moog. The otherworldly 'Dance Of The Cosmo Aliens', taken from 1978's Disco 3000, is another real high point in the collection. Featuring mainly Ra on moog and drum machine, with some accompanying percussion from Luqman Ali, this track was light-years ahead of its time in 1978 and still stands as an incredibly evocative piece of electronica to this day. Unreleased track 'Trying To Put The Blame On Me' features Ra on piano and vocals, exhibiting the more vulnerable side to the man himself, and is all the more beautiful for doing so.

From thereon in, the compilation never puts a foot wrong, running through some current live Arkestra favourites, 'Planet Earth', 'Ancient Aiethiopia', 'Interplanetary Music' and 'We Travel The Spaceways', as well as the dubby insanity of unreleased track 'Reflects Motion Part I'. Whilst Sun Ra's enormous back catalogue will always mean that certain aspects of his music may be deemed unrepresented on any given compilation, this collection has huge appeal for both newcomers and obsessive fans alike.

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