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

MURRAY McNABB'S ASTRAL SURFERS ALBUM (2009): Keyboardist . . . to the stars

MURRAY McNABB'S ASTRAL SURFERS ALBUM (2009): Keyboardist . . . to the stars

Long experience and years of disappointment have taught me that very few among this country’s more established jazz musicians listen to much beyond their own doorstep or record collection.... > Read more

JOE LOVANO INTERVIEWED (2008): Life is in the learning

JOE LOVANO INTERVIEWED (2008): Life is in the learning

At 55, Joe Lovano is one of the leading saxophonists of his generation, and has a career notable for its diversity. He has played straight ahead and swing, worked with Cuban musicians and... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT . . . HANK GARLAND: The forgotten star of the six string

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT . . . HANK GARLAND: The forgotten star of the six string

When guitarist Hank Garland's '59 Chev station wagon spun out on a road in Tennessee and hammered into a tree in September 1961 it left him unconscious in hospital for weeks. And although he... > Read more

John Hiatt: She Loves the Jerk (1983)

John Hiatt: She Loves the Jerk (1983)

Songs of spousal abuse or domestic violence are never going to be pretty or common, in fact on a countback the most outstanding one prior to this by Hiatt was probably the gloomy and dark He Hit Me... > Read more