Artist: Sun Ra
Sun Ra — born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, 1914 — was the most experimental jazz musician of all time. To even classify him as “jazz” or “experimental” (or a “musician”) is troubling; the pianist who christened himself Le Sony’r Ra claimed to be an alien from Saturn, and his extreme, avant-garde space music acts as evidence.
It should come as no surprise that Sun Ra’s debut album is one of his most accessible. He had yet to fully indulge himself in the esoteric concepts he would soon become famous for, and the majority of Jazz by Sun Ra follows typical bebop convention. However, the signs pointing the way forward are already in place.
The bold baritone sax that begins the LP in “Brainville,” the buoyant timbale rumblings that swallow up “Street Named Hell,” the off-kilter piano phrasings that provide the un-sturdy backbone on which every other composition wobbles — this is Sun Ra at his finest. It simply wouldn’t be a Solar Arkestra record unless every member of the ensemble is credited with percussion.
The brass arrangements often bear a dreamy similarity to the sound of Charles Mingus, while Sun Ra’s frenetic soloing (much more frequent on Side B) echo the explorations of Cecil Taylor. Nevertheless, the music of the Arkestra is completely unique, even in this early developmental stage. Everything falls together perfectly in “Sun Song,” the LP’s experimental grand finale. Ra punctures the proceedings with eerie swells of Hammond organ, while a bout of percussion glissandi mysteriously fills up the background. If the rest of Jazz by Sun Ra features an adventurous band preparing for takeoff, “Sun Song” finds them leaving the atmosphere for parts unknown.
Required listening is a term that is thrown around quite liberally these days (often by me), but make no mistakes, Jazz by Sun Ra is necessary not only for fans of avant-garde jazz, but for fans of music in general. Paired with Super Sonic Jazz, Sun Ra’s early recorded output charts a trajectory to the stars, with several psychedelic pit stops along the way.