Given the rather daunting size of the Sun Ra catalog (over 100 known recordings, with plenty of semi-bootleg releases still turning up 20 years after his death) as well as its extreme stylistic breadth, there’s no set answer or even a remotely definitive list to give to someone when they ask “Where do you start?” when it comes to diving into the life’s work of the enigmatic Sun Ra.
In my own case, it was literally some Sun Ra CDs that I found, and that worked just fine for me, but finally veteran music journalist Kris Needs has provided a methodical and archival approach to Sun Ra’s oeuvre with the new 3CD box set, Sun Ra: A Space Odyssey.
Dating back to Sun Ra’s earliest days as a working musician and arranger in Chicago and his initial flight as a bandleader, for the most part, what’s on display here is slightly adventuresome big band music. The futuristic outer space mutant bop cacophony of the Arkestra was still to come, although there are hints of it aplenty in these early recordings.
Sun Ra: A Space Odyssey is the kind of detailed box set that could have only been put together by an expert’s expert, with a profound love for Sun Ra’s music. I can’t stop listening to it. Kris Needs has done music fans a great favor by compiling A Space Odyssey, I can only hope that he and Fantastic Voyage Records have future Sun Ra sets like this one in store for us. 10/10.
Below, Edward O. Bland’s 1959 quasi-documentary short, Cry of Jazz. Scenes of the Arkestra were filmed between 1956 and 1958, before the band and its leader began wearing the distinctive Egyptian and science fiction-styled headdresses and costumes they would later become well-known for: