The Boston Phoenix November 23 - 30, 2000

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Travels in hyperjazz

Sun Ra's universe

by Dave Marsh

Sun Ra For four decades, Sun Ra was either one of the most advanced musicians on the planet or a fraud. Amiri Baraka refers to Ra's "actually scientific philosophical musings on the Universe," but when I used to see Ra and his Arkestra playing with rock bands in Detroit, he always seemed to be a master of science fiction and theatrical hokum. I don't mean that as anything but praise. No avant-gardists in history were as much fun as Sun Ra's vast group, a platoon of vividly costumed dancers, singers, and musicians. When they snaked through the audience, you became part of them. Sun Ra violated all canons of artistic propriety, or rather, he ignored them as being beneath him -- which they are to anyone trying to do something worthwhile.

Sun Ra lived in obscurity but was always surrounded by immensely talented musicians, most of whom played only with him, though the saxophonists Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, and Marshall Allen and singer June Tyson were talented enough to be stars anywhere in jazz. Ra himself was a master organist and pianist as well as a great composer. Indeed, he sounds like nothing so much as a master disciple of Duke Ellington for much of Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel, an 18-track sampler produced by Evidence Records from the 71 albums Ra made for Saturn Records. "Medicine for a Nightmare," his version of Monk's " 'Round Midnight," and even "When Angels Speak of Love" are almost conventionally beautiful. Even "The Perfect Man" is not so far outside that you couldn't take it for straight-up P-Funk. But then you get to "Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus" and "We Travel the Spaceways," and you begin to see what Baraka meant. Or what Ra did when he claimed to be from outside this solar system.

Although you can prove that Ra's body appeared as Herman "Sonny" Blount in Alabama in 1915, that doesn't explain a damned thing about how he was able to make such abstract and aggressive noises cohere so powerfully. If you need an explanation, John Szwed's biography, Space Is the Place (Pantheon), offers an excellent one. But I prefer to listen and marvel. Evidence has released close to 50 of Ra's Saturn albums on CD, and there are more scattered across the catalogues of labels like Delmark, A&M, DIW, and Ra disciple John Sinclair's Alive/Total Energy, way more than you could get when Ra was alive.

The other day I ran across a recording of Baraka's A Black Mass (Son Boy Records, Box 50152, Washington, DC 20091), with Ra and his Arkestra, a 1965 play based on the Brother Jacoub mythology of the Nation of Islam. Baraka makes it a story about the tension between the idea that "time is an animal thing" and the idea that "time is a human thing." Skronking away in the background, Ra and his band pull all the threads together -- or, rather, show how they all fall apart. "It is a fool's game to invent what does not need to be invented," proclaim Baraka's unmad scientists, trying to talk Jacoub out of creating the white devil. "Let us be fools then, for creation is its own end," Jacoub declares. If I listen to the rest of my life, I'll be able to figure out which side Ra was on.

Dave Marsh is a syndicated columnist.

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