SUN RA IN THE SEVENTIES (2010): Back from space

 |   |  2 min read

Sun Ra: Tenderly
SUN RA IN THE SEVENTIES (2010): Back from space

In the late Eighties and early Nineties, Sun Ra was the hip name to drop into rock conversations: I think Sonic Youth and Henry Rollins started it, but frequently rock musicians who had paid scant attention to jazz of any kind were mentioning the great Sun Ra alongside Led Zeppelin as an influence.

As with Tony Bennett being cool with the grunge generation, I kinda doubted it.

Sun Ra was as much a great story as an influential musician. Born Henry Blount in Alabama in about 1914, he deliberately obscured the details of his early life (like Dylan) and created himself as Sun Ra, a mystical musical explorer who helmed his Arkestra through the realms of outer space and inner consciousness – or something like that.

What was less widely acknowledged by those who liked his free spirit and free playing was that Sun Ra was grounded in the blues and swing, and knew how to score for a big ensemble. But his eccentric behaviour and outfits (Egyptian-meets-sci-fi Saturn) gathered publicity and an audience, especially when the huge band included dancers and fire-eaters.

Sun Ra could keep a big band on the road when Ellington and Count Basie were struggling.

In many ways these were distraction from Ra's greater purpose of creating a barrier-ignoring, improvising big band and orchestral sound which had as much to do with New Orleans and John Coltrane as avant-jazz and space-fusion.

Sun Ra's catalogue is big – close to 100 legit albums, many bootlegs – but an odd album (and there are some real odd ones) has been reissued.ra1

Some Blues But Not The Kind That's Blue was (probably) recorded in '73 when he relocated to Philadelphia from New York and was going him back to his roots in swing and more traditional styles. This isn't the album if you've been seduced to Ra's music by Thurston Moore and like the photos of weird glittery costumes.

Here Ra plays terrific swing blues piano on 'I'll Get By' (two extra takes recorded a few years later have been added to the original album which came out in '78) and the untitled breakdown is exciting in the manner of a more considered Cecil Taylor. There's also a fine, constrained 10-minute 'My Favourite Things' (which Coltrane frequently used as a vehicle), and the standards 'Tenderly' and 'Nature Boy' are gently deconstructed.

The small group includes longtime Ra band members Marshall Alen (alto) and trumpeter Akh Tal Ebah (aka Doug E. Williams), and the great tenor player John Gilmore who cuts a wide path through the title track and the untitled piece.

Some Blues is not an essential Sun Ra album – but it's a reminder that behind the image was a black musician who knew his history and came from there, and not from outer space.

Share It

Your Comments

post a comment

More from this section   Jazz articles index

John Key Trio: Back and Forth (Odd)

John Key Trio: Back and Forth (Odd)

Because there is so little money to be made out of releasing a local jazz album, you are surprised to find anyone bothering at all. And that may explain the nine year gap between this by... > Read more

Chet Baker: In New York (American Jazz Classics/Southbound)

Chet Baker: In New York (American Jazz Classics/Southbound)

Although you could hardly argue with a line-up which had tenor player Johnny Griffin, pianist Al Haig, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones alongside trumpeter Chet Baker, the result... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

BRUCE IGLAUER OF ALLIGATOR RECORDS: The bossman of the blues

BRUCE IGLAUER OF ALLIGATOR RECORDS: The bossman of the blues

On a per head of population basis, Bruce Iglauer – the founder of Alligator Records – has been the man who has let you hear the real minority stuff. As he said when we spoke in... > Read more

Somerset, Far North Queensland, Australia: Didn't build it, they didn't come

Somerset, Far North Queensland, Australia: Didn't build it, they didn't come

So this was to be the site of a city to rival Singapore, this short crescent of white sand fringed by palms and mangroves, and looking onto a deep channel towards a nearby island? On a quiet... > Read more