A HUNDRED years ago a man named Herman Poole Blount was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Although he would have disputed that, for not only did he claim to be an alien who arrived on Earth on his intergalactic journeys, he also renounced what he called his ‘slave name’ in favour of Sun Ra. “I have many names,” he once announced. “Some call me Mr Ra, others call me Mr Re. You can call me Mr Mystery.”
But what isn’t in dispute is that during his time on Earth — he passed away, whether back to Saturn or not, in 1993 — Sun Ra created music that was truly off the planet. With his Arkestra — the sprawling ensemble of musicians he helmed — Sun Ra embarked on wild jazz adventures as kaleidoscopic as the cosmic nebulae they were aiming for, adventures which have inspired countless musical explorers since.
“He was just so far ahead of his time with all the electronics, DIY sleeves and crazy costumes,” enthuses DJ and Sun Ra aficionado Gilles Peterson. “He influenced everyone from Miles Davis to Sly & the Family Stone and people like Mark Pritchard and Bjork. His records provide so many samples for beat-heads because a lot of it sounds like Aphex Twin crossed with Cinematic Orchestra.”
Gilles recalls being introduced to Sun Ra “by a crazy record dealer called Brian at the original Soul Jazz shop in Soho”, a similar rite of passage into Sun Ra’s world as that of London producer Mr Beatnick, aka Nick Wilson, whose shifting harmonics on his recent ‘Synthetes’ trilogy of EPs were clearly bathed in Sun Ra’s glow.
“My interest in Sun Ra burgeoned from a few different directions — Madlib regularly shouting him out, Thurston Moore naming him as a key influence, John Peel and Gilles Peterson both playing him on their shows,” Nick explains. “But the first few records I bought were just because they looked really wild.
“Most decent record shops tend to have some Sun Ra records up on the wall,” he continues. “The visual art drew me in before the music — it just looked so strange and otherworldly. With Sun Ra, one record is really all it takes to drag you into his spiralling vortex of sound and poetry.”
It’s a vortex that can seem daunting for the uninitiated, though. Having recorded literally hundreds of albums over 40 years — the majority of which were released in extremely limited runs through his own Saturn label — the Sun Ra back catalogue is as labyrinthine as the tombs of Ancient Egypt, with which he was also obsessed. It’s long begged the question ‘Where do you start?’ – one now answered by the new Strut Records collection ‘In The Orbit Of Ra’, released to mark his centenary.
As close to a ‘Greatest Hits’ as you’ll ever get from a group who had little commercial success, but whose tracks like ‘Rocket Number Nine Take Off For Planet Venus’, ‘Astro Black’ and ‘We Travel The Spaceways’ are genuinely amongst the most influential in modern music, it’s been compiled by the most knowledgeable guide possible — Marshall Allen, the nonagenarian saxophonist who was a key member of the Arkestra throughout Sun Ra’s life, and now leads it as ‘musical director’ today.
“I could have picked hundreds, but they were just the ones I liked,” Marshall says of the new collection. “It’s the melodies I love — every time we played them we would do them with different rhythms, but the melodies carry on. I don’t really have any favourite memories because every day was different. He was always coming up with something new, so you never knew what to expect — and that carried you along.”
If there was one driving force behind Sun Ra and his Arkestra, it was a desire for change. In a musical sense they first redefined and then blew away the boundaries of what was considered ‘jazz’ — originally a pianist inspired by the big bands of Duke Ellington, Sun Ra then sought to reinvent the concept of the big band in his own image. He was also one of the first jazz musicians to use electronic instruments, although as Marshall remembers: “When electronic instruments first came out, we couldn’t afford them. Sun Ra saw they would be the future but we had to make those sounds with conventional instruments at first, so I would spend a long time trying to make a saxophone sound like a synthesiser.”
But the desired change was also philosophical, an ambition to create art which would elevate human consciousness through capturing what Marshall calls “the vibrations” of existence, which — as he puts it — “change every day”. That’s meant that the quintessence of Sun Ra has arguably been impossible to capture on record, and has to be experienced in the flesh.
Touring ceaselessly since the 1950s and continuing to this day, an Arkestra show is more akin to occult ritual than concert, as the band dress in home-made psychedelic robes and conjure up sounds ranging from avant-garde onslaughts of noise to lissom interpretations of jazz standards, constantly tripping down tangents that ensure every performance is different from any before. Gilles Peterson says that seeing the Arkestra perform was an unofficial pre-requisite for every artist he signed to his Talkin’ Loud label, whilst Marshall describes their live shows thus: “We would have fire-eaters and dancers because we needed to keep people entertained. It’s different to hearing it on record because — although a record will go on forever — when it’s live you’re capturing and amplifying the vibration that’s in the room at that time, so people feel it more.’
Yet freeform and unhinged as the Arkestra could seem, their apparent insanity was actually the result of an intense discipline fostered by Sun Ra — who would have the musicians rehearse his ideas for up to 12 hours a day in the house in Philadelphia that Marshall still calls home. “He was a great teacher, but he wasn’t a teacher like you have in school where they just tell you things,” Marshall elaborates. “He showed that you couldn’t just read about these things in a book — you had to live your life and do them. You need to have discipline and not be selfish but I don’t need to know everything.”
It was in that dwelling that Philly house music DJ/producer King Britt first encountered Sun Ra, when his mother — a devoted fan of the group — used to take him there as a child. “I remember hating the screeching but loving the amazing costumes — they were like superheroes,” he laughs. “I think subconsciously and consciously Ra has influenced a generation, as someone who believes in himself and created an entire universe to offer this world.”
King has paid homage to Sun Ra in the variety of guises he’s adopted throughout his career — whether in the jazzy hip-hop of Digable Planets, his Afrobeat-influenced Obafunke project or the sci-fi soundtracks of ‘The Phoenix’ album he recently released as Fhloston Paradigm — and also staging a direct tribute when he curated a performance based around a Sun Ra exhibition at the ICA Philadelphia in 2009. That led to King curating other events, including the recent Moondance event at the MoMA PS1 gallery in New York, a programme of lectures, debates and performances positing Sun Ra as a leading light of what has become known as ‘Afro-futurism’.
Afro-futurism, in King’s words, is “black culture and its process told through a science fiction lens”, a train of thought in visual art, music, film and literature which imagines alternative realities free of oppression for black people, based on both ancient mythology and visions of the future. As wide-ranging as the African diaspora itself, Afro-futurist concepts can today be found in Detroit techno artists such as Drexciya and Carl Craig, the beat science of Flying Lotus and the hip-hoperatic concept albums of Outkast and Janelle Monae — to name just a few — and can be traced back through George Clinton and Jimi Hendrix to Sun Ra and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.
Sun Ra directly experienced racial segregation in his life, yet Afro-futurism is neither a political or musical dogma but a belief in what King summarises Sun Ra’s message as “you do not need to fit in the construct of what the conditioned society has presented”, something Jamal Moss fervently subscribes to.
“I make music as a form of therapy and I feel Sun Ra’s music is a way of him healing his frustrations with the world,” the Chicago-based producer explains of Sun Ra’s influence on the raw techno he produces as Hieroglyphic Being on albums like 2010’s ‘Ankh’ or his new ‘The Seer Of Cosmic Visions’ LP. “His aesthetic started changing how I look at life. Hopefully what I’m doing influences somebody else, and that keeps that invisible umbilical cord going through generations to come because that’s what creators try to do. They’re not destroyers — it’s better to be alpha than omega. He was the genesis that created something, and I’m somewhere along that continuum.”
Jamal’s part in that continuum was enshrined when he recently collaborated with members of the Arkestra on an album due for release next year, an experience he calls “humbling. Sometimes the universe works out in a certain way and things in the cosmos will come to fruition and bring that blessing about.” It sounds like exactly the sort of thing Sun Ra might say, or what the more cynical might deride as cosmic gobbledegook.
Indeed, whilst the arcane aura and esoteric theories of Sun Ra add new dimensions to the music for those prepared to study them, for others they can be as painful to get your head around as some of his more extreme wig-outs. But, Nick believes, you don’t have to fully understand Sun Ra’s message to fully appreciate his music.
“What he was saying was so deliberately open to interpretation,” he elaborates. “He was a poet, a philosopher, even a comedian, and you can enjoy it and interpret it in your own way without any ideological preconceptions. Sun Ra would want you to switch off your analytical human programming and just listen in an open-hearted, open-minded way.”
Of course, being stereotyped as anything — whether that be ‘black man’ or ‘jazz musician’ — was exactly what Sun Ra fought against, so pinning his music down is both impossible and anathema to everything he sought to achieve. Even Marshall seems baffled by some aspects of his mentor’s legacy, if in no doubt of the best way to carry it on.
“I don’t fully understand everything Sun Ra was trying to do,” he says. “But what I learned is that you’ve got a vision and you chase it, and that’s what I’m doing. I don’t want to play what I know because what I know leads me nowhere. I want to play the unknown. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t know, but I think we’re going in the right direction.”
Follow the leader.