By Garrett Caples
Wednesday May 20, 2009
AFRO-SURREAL "The Black Man in the Cosmos" wasn't among the course offerings when I attended the University of California-Berkeley. The class was taught once, in 1971, by musician/composer Sun Ra (1914-93), whose lectures might include topics like the outer space origins of ancient Egypt, conceptualized as a black African culture. This cosmic tradition has a long history, particularly in Chicago, where Ra lived from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, and where Elijah Muhammad used it as the founding mythos of the Nation of Islam. Ra claimed to have influenced the NOI, though he rejected its conclusions, much as he would later criticize the Black Power movement he helped foster as too materialist.
Ra's "Black Man" lectures — one of which recently surfaced on The Creator of the Universe (Transparency, 2007) — epitomize why he wasn't taken seriously for so long. Critics who appreciated the severity of Ornette Coleman or the ferocity of Albert Ayler couldn't accommodate the mischievous mysticism of a man who claimed to come from Saturn. Instead of playing the role of brooding artiste, Ra favored extravagant showmanship, cloaking ultimately stern spiritual messages in language as absurd as the science-fictional garb worn by his Arkestra. His strategies included Joycean deformations of words based on false etymologies and sound play. "Arkestra" itself characteristically mixes the spiritual (Ark of the Covenant) with the quotidian. According to John Szwed's definitive 1998 biography, Space is the Place, this was how "orchestra" was pronounced in Ra's native Birmingham, Ala.
Yet the strangeness of Ra's music may have been the biggest stumbling block. His prodigious output is extremely diverse, continually violating unquestioned dichotomies. A product of the 1930s big band scene, when he led an orchestra under his terrestrial name Herman "Sonny" Blount, Ra was at the forefront of free jazz, yet he shocked fans and foes alike when, at its height, he began incorporating tight arrangements of swing classics by Fletcher Henderson, Ellington, and others into his sound.
Ra's lifelong interest in synthesizers — there's a photo of him with a primitive one in 1941(!) — developed into a command of pure sound. He adapted his style to the nuances of a particular keyboard. The 1970 recording Night of the Purple Moon (Atavistic, 2007), for instance, is a quartet disc on which he plays baroque runs on the Rocksichord, a 1960s electric harpsichord. The 1978 recording Disco 3000 (Art Yard, 2008), a live quartet performance, features Ra's organ-like drones on the obscure, loop-enabled Crumar Mainman. Unlike some synth wizards, Ra was a virtuoso pianist, with a lightning-fast right hand and a left hand that seemingly bounced around of its own volition. While unafraid to mash the keys with his forearm, Ra's ambidextrous precision and unorthodox chord voicings — he was unafraid to mash the keys with his forearm — place him among the top players of his time. If he'd worn a suit and stuck to piano, he'd be ranked with the likes of Art Tatum, as is evident from his previously-unreleased recital Solo Piano: Teatro la Fenice Venizia (Golden Years, 2003), possibly the best such recording.
Big bands remained Ra's ideal, though they were giving way to smaller bop combos by the time he formed the Arkestra in the mid-'50s. Yet his insularity resulted in some of his most original works, discs that defy generic categories, like 1963's reverb-drenched, proto-psychedelic Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy (Evidence, 1992), 1965's percussive, minimalist Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, v. 1 (Esp, 2006), or 1967's Strange Strings (Atavistic, 2007), on which the Arkestra, with no prior experience, plays various non-Western stringed instruments, accompanied by bells, tympani, sheet-metal lightning.
While the atonal Strings may be Ra's least typical album, it embodies two of his main concerns. On the one hand, he was a tone colorist in the Romantic tradition, seeking unusual instrumentation to produce unique shades. But as that album's untutored string section suggests, he was a highly conceptual composer — garnering attention from John Cage and others — known for arranging and conducting collective improvisation. Traditional/avant-garde, inside/outside: such oppositions didn't exist for Ra, who even explored a "low" genre like disco on 1980's tongue-in-cheek On Jupiter (Art Yard, 2008).
The bewildering amount of Sun Ra reissues stems from his habit of self-recording, which also dates from the 1940s. Had he not done so, albums like Strings and Cosmic Tones wouldn't have been recorded. Nor would they have been released without his forming El Saturn Records, among the earliest artist-run labels. Given that his technological futurism seemed to stem from his preoccupation with outer space, Ra's artistic achievements are perhaps inextricably bound to his cosmic consciousness. As with Prince, artistic activity was driven by extramusical concerns, which, if they result in an occasional lapse in "good taste," nonetheless are the ingredients that elevate Ra from artistic excellence to genius. This genius may not have given him more than a subsistence living, but it has made him immortal. Unless, of course, as an inhabitant of Saturn, he already was.