Albums reveal Sun Ra's jazz genius

Thousands of "Greatest Hits" collections are available in all musical categories, but only one, released recently, can claim that the music offers "Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel."

That album, "Sun Ra and his Arkestra, Greatest Hits," is one of five new CD packages on the Evidence label that showcase the strangest career in the history of American jazz.

Sun Ra, aka Herman Poole "Sonny" Blout, came into this world in 1914 through working-class African-American parents. He began to define himself during the 1950s, with the release of his first albums, as coming to Earth from outer space with the intention of bringing about better spiritual understanding through the performance of his original music.

None of his albums or singles ever sold so well as to make the "greatest hits" label anything more than a joke, one applied by Evidence Record head honcho Jerry Gordon.

The definition of "easy listening" has also been elasticized.

While perhaps half of the 18 selections on "Greatest Hits" are lushly arranged big-band jazz tunes that would please Duke Ellington fans, the remaining selections have moments of intense brass and keyboard dissonance and clashing polyrhythms.

The album offers familiar versions of Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight" and Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy" and quite odd versions of Sun Ra's original songs like "Rocket Number Nine Take Off For the Planet Venus."

When performed live, songs like "We Travel the Spaceways" found the musicians dancing off the stage and into the audience, inviting listeners to join the band in a romp of intergalactic travel. Band members would wear outlandish costumes decorated with stars and moons.

As if the outer-space travel lyrics weren't enough of a surprise, Sun Ra and his band also invented novel musical instruments, many featured on the other four new discs.

On "Pathways to Unknown Worlds/Friendly Love" you can hear the only example ever recorded of an instrument called "The Neptunian libflecto," a bassoon refashioned with either a French horn or saxophone mouthpiece. It creates an otherworldly sound suggesting a Halloween concert on Saturn.

Yet all these demonstrations of wild exotica shouldn't scare listeners away from the sound of traditional jazz flavored with blues on "The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums" and the touches of disco and rock beats on "Lanquidity."

Sun Ra never tried to intentionally obscure his message of spiritual illumination through music. The composer wrote in the notes to an early recording, "The real aim of this music is to coordinate the minds of peoples into an intelligent reach for a better world...."

As biographer John F. Szwed explains in "Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra" (Pantheon), Sun Ra and his band saw themselves as needing to bring their music to every listener on earth.

To do so, they quickly released under their own Saturn label scores of recordings with hand-drawn artwork on album sleeves.

The bulk of these records had, prior to now, been unavailable for years.

But in spite of difficulty in obtaining albums, Sun Ra's influence has grown since his death in 1993. His band has continued under various leaders, and his music has influenced rock musicians like Pink Floyd as well as jazz innovators.

These new releases should further inspire music lovers to reach for the stars.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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