Sun Ra: 10 Essential Tracks

Sun Ra would have turned 100 this year. Instead, he died in 1993 at the age of 79—though it can’t be said that the jazz icon didn’t make good use of his time on Earth. In fact, he also made good use of his time not on Earth. His catalog spans dozens of albums and singles (many of which were recently digitally reissued) that trace a pioneering path not only through 20th-century music, but through the vast cosmos he claimed to have explored. Born in 1914—a fact not definitively confirmed until near the end of his life—Herman Blount grew up immersed in music, imagination, and self-mythology. At an early age, the Alabama native began playfully denying his birth name, and his precocity as a pianist was kindled by seeing performances by Duke Ellington, whose mix of big-band swing and lush, intricate composition helped guide Blount toward a career in music—and an aesthetic that would transform the face of jazz. It wasn’t easy. Years of gigging with the Sonny Blount Orchestra and as a nightclub sideman culminated in nothing. Then, around the age of 23, he had an epiphany: a vision of visiting Saturn as an astrally-projected entity, where he met aliens and was made privy to a prophecy of both his life and of humanity. Armed with this occult insight, he threw himself into music anew. He made his recording debut in 1946 as the rollicking pianist on Wynonie Harris’ ‘Dig This Boogie’ and played with one of his childhood heroes, swing-band leader Fletcher Henderson. A move to Chicago brought an increased awareness of the rising tide of black consciousness, and Blout legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra in 1952. By then he’d formed the Space Trio, which began expanding like a supernova, encompassing more members and engulfing Sun Ra in the aura of an extravagantly-attired retro-spaceman who drew from Ancient Nubian history as well as the inevitability of mankind’s flight to the stars. This approach would come to be called Afrofuturism—and it’s embodied in Sun Ra’s first album, 1957’s Jazz By Sun Ra Vol. 1 (later reissued as Sun Song). Billed under the name the Arkestra, which reflected both his big-band roots and his eschatological worldview, the album became the opening shot of a dizzying array of releases. Like swarms of neutrinos, his songs began penetrating the jazz world without the jazz world much noticing—but as the Arkestra’s size and scope grew, its gravitational influence began to pull on others. …”
Pitchfork (Video)
A Guide to the Many Sun Ra Albums Now Available on Bandcamp (Audio)
Space Is the Place: A Somewhat Comprehensive Guide to Sun Ra’s Cosmic Jazz
BeatCaffeine’s 15 Most Essential Sun Ra Records (Audio)

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