Sun Ra

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(1914-1993) US jazz composer and musician, born Herman Poole Blount. Sun Ra played and released a large quantity of music, mostly in the postwar period, all of it inflected by his fascination with outer space, Alien encounter, Ancient Egypt (whose Sun god inspired his working name) and Atlantis.

Ra spent the 1950s mostly recording in Chicago. In 1961 he moved to New York, and his music grew more experimental, more challenging, and sometimes less coherent. A second move followed in the early 1970s, this time to Philadelphia. Ra's early albums, from Sun Song (1956; original title Jazz by Sun-Ra) onwards, sound like much of the swing or bebop jazz of that period, but Ra's music rapidly evolved into a spacey free-jazz that was much more experimental and is now what people tend to think of as the "Sun Ra" style. His band The Arkestra (the group released records under many variants of this name, including "The Sun Ra Arkestra", "The Solar Myth Arkestra", "The Blue Universe Arkestra", "The Astro Infinity Arkestra", "The Jet Set Omniverse Arkestra", and various others) was a large ensemble with a high turnover of members; a fluidity that provided Ra with a practical correlative to his musical aesthetic of flow, liberation and compositional improvisation. In a sense all Sun Ra's many releases (his discography is complex, but there may be more than a hundred titles) have the same theme: a message for the human race articulating, in musical form, the escape-route from Earthly discord towards a cosmic spiritual oneness of freedom and joy. Sun Ra claimed to have acquired his wisdom during a sojourn on Saturn, whence he had been transported by Alien intelligences in the 1930s (or, according to some sources, the early 1950s). His account of this time is detailed, and shares many features with other benign alien abduction narratives (see UFOs), although preceding the cultural vogue for such things by a decade or more. Ra certainly believed literally in this story, and both lived and worked according to the principles of the science-fictional philosophy he derived from the experience.

A typical Ra composition juxtaposes lightly shuffling bass and cymbals with rangy, freeform keyboard playing (by Ra himself), or tart and often atonal melodic lines from brass or woodwind. But, it should be added, any generalizations about a body of work so large and stylistically diverse can only ever be the clumsiest of summary gestures. "Experimental space jazz" as a description perhaps sounds (as a lot of Ra's music does also) forbidding, although much of his output is not in the least offputting. For instance, "Tapestry from an Asteroid" (on The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra, 1961) and We Travel the Spaceways (?1959, as by "Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra") are both languidly atmospheric; and "El is a Sound of Joy" (on Sound of Joy, 1968) works its aleatory improvisation in a piquant rather than a jarring way. On the other hand there is a good quantity of Sun Ra music that is difficult, or even rebarbative.

From the very large number of albums Ra recorded, all deeply implicated in the more occult varieties of mainstream science fiction, only a few can be mentioned here. The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One (1965) and Volume Two (1966) are highly regarded by many; works that tootle and blow filigree aural extraterrestrial landscapes, gelling sometimes into bursts of musical ferocity. Atlantis (1967) bobs and slides sinuously about its subject, and Space is the Place (1972, as by "Sun Ra and his Astro Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra") showcases Ra's sonic eccentricity as much as his range and variety. "Celestrial Road" (on Strange Celestrial Road, 1982) strikingly mashes-up haunting vocals, bursts of loud Stravinskyesque brass and a low-key funk bassline. Ra continued releasing work throughout the 1980s and 1990s with no apparent diminution in energy or originality; one of the most remarkable and original figures in sf music, the process of coming to terms with his enormous and important body of work is only now getting underway. [AR]

Herman Poole Blount (birth name); later legal name Le Sony'r Ra

born Birmingham, Alabama: 22 May 1914

died Birmingham, Alabama: 30 May 1993

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