If ever the word esoteric were suited to one highly creative individual, then leader and multi-keyboardist Sun Ra might just be that person. The outer-stratospheric musical adventures of his music are one of the joys of this latest compilation of Sun Ra’s craft and, in this writer’s opinion, is a marked improvement on the already excellent previous one on Strut. Compiled by DJ Gilles Peterson who has a genuine empathy and passion for Sun Ra’s music, this new anthology combines the large orchestral (well not in any conventional sense an ‘orchestra’, but a collective of musicians in any case) and the more intimate compositions and this is where this new compilation wins hands down. Within the wider jazz tradition, Sun Ra is both a major innovator of and adherer to that same tradition, with frequent references to swing and the Fletcher Henderson orchestra with whom Sun Ra first plied his trade (the arrangements of Ellington are also evident) as well as left-field artists such as Thelonius Monk, and it is the latter who is evoked on a superb percussive piece, ‘Brazilian Sun’, where Sun Ra on piano lays down single notes to create a staccato feel while the relentless percussion overrides an offbeat, yet intensely funky groove. Sun Ra shifts to the electric piano (one of the first keyboardists to do so) on the waltz-like ‘Love in Outer Space’ with a lovely male lead vocalist and the complex harmonies are added to with subtle additional layers of sound, the leader providing a repetitive flavour with a piano vamp. Old-school swing à la Ellington is a predominant feature of ‘Loneliness’ with collective horns and fine trumpet and tenor saxophone solos while the increasingly complex use of horns as the number progresses hints at Mingus.
Gilles Peterson does not showcase the obvious Sun Ra cuts, but his insightful knowledge of the musician means that some familiar favourites are heard in slightly different settings, this being the case for example of live versions of ‘Astro Black’ and ‘Space is the place’. Despite the sometimes complex arrangements, one of the joys of listening to Sun Ra is that the lovely melodies are very accessible and this is most certainly the case of ‘Sun Song’, with its stunning laid back percussion and doo-wop vocals. Sun Ra was constantly searching for new instruments to add to the layers of the Arkestra sound and performs tenderly on fender Rhodes on ‘India’ while a trumpeter gently wails in the background. Latin grooves in the 1960s were on Sun Ra’s radar and some Afro-Cuban flavoured post-bop is on offer with ‘Watusa’ with a simple, yet effective piano vamp and intense percussion over collective horns. For a more intimate setting, the all too brief ‘Spontaneous simplicity’ with pared-down instrumentation and delightful flute makes for a highly enjoyable alternative listen.
One important piece of information for those reflecting on which format to opt for. The three different formats feature various versions and thus those purchasing the vinyl-only will have a selection only of the full-length versions, whereas CD buyers will have the segued versions of all, and those interested in the digital format will have the advantage of the complete unmixed originals plus the segued versions. This writer listened to the CD version and the segued pieces were seamlessly weaved together and yet the individual pieces still stand out on their own. No single anthology can ever hope to capture the totality of Sun Ra’s musical achievements, but this offering goes pretty close nonetheless.