We make a big deal out of David Bowie’s multiple musical personalities, but what about Sun Ra?
He’s an avant-gardist, but his catalogue also embraces pop: doo-wop, swing, and, sincerely, Disney showtunes. At the same time, some digging will reveal stuff that’s beyond even the usual scope of free jazz, like the sparse group improvisation “The Magic City” or the album Strange Strings, where Arkestra members improvise on exotic stringed instruments they hadn’t yet learned how to play.
Volunteering at KZSU gave me exposure to some of this music, and now I can explore it even further. A wealth of Sun Ra material came online this fall, available on Bandcamp and eMusic. In fact, it’s overwhelming. I didn’t know where to start.
Diving in almost at random, I gave a listen to Other Voices, Other Blues, a 1978 live session with John Gilmore on tenor sax and Michael Ray on trumpet. There’s no bass; Sun Ra provides basslines with his keyboards while Luqman Ali holds down the drum kit.
The 1970s synthesizers can be a dated distraction on tracks like “Bridge on the Ninth Dimension,” but all is forgiven when a Gilmore/Ray free-for-all emerges later. Even under the fluorescent glow of synths, that’s some heart-warming free jazz there.
One track that really caught my ear was “Along the Tiber,” a more traditional jazz piece. I think it was a matter of encountering that song at just the right time and mood for me; it clicked. That Sun Ra sticks to acoustic piano on this one helped.
I’ll probably delve into the 1978 funk of Lanquidity next. That album got re-released on CD by Evidence Music in 2001, part of a small Sun Ra block that was sent to us at KZSU. I never gave it the attention it deserved, and I can say that for a lot of Sun Ra’s catalogue.