In the past year, I’ve been starting to delve into the quirky jazz sub-genre of Afrofuturism. One of the first posts I made on this blog when we launched was about organist Larry Young’s insane 1973 jazzspacerock monolith Lawrence of Newark. I’ve also told you of my love for Parliament-Funkadelic. The whole idea of outer space “Black Power” style sci-fi theorizings—especially if there are costumes and polemic involved—is something I give a big thumbs up to. After searching out more of Young’s music (look out for the bootleg of him jamming with Jimi Hendrix and the Love, Cry, Want album, recorded live at the Washington Mall during a concert that Nixon had the plug pulled on) and listening to his work obsessively in the car for months, I began to make tentative (and not for the first time) inroads to the unbelievably vast—over 1000 songs—catalog of the great Sun Ra.
It’s not easy to find an entry point into Sun Ra’s sprawling oeuvre. Every Sun Ra fan has a strong opinion and no one agrees on where to start. I’ve digested Jazz in Silhouette, Space is the Place, Secrets of the Sun, The Singles, The Nubians of Plutonia and the Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra—the ones you are “supposed” to start off with—but I find that the Transparency label’s Lost Reel Collection of rare Sun Ra recordings contain some of the most astonishing material I’ve heard thus far. I’m one of those people who likes the really “difficult” Miles Davis material (circa 1970 to 1975) so the futher out, usually, the better as far as I am concerned to jazz. According to a rock snob friend of mine who would know, the cache of tapes Transparency has access to are like no other material found in the official released Sun Ra canon. If you read the reviews, Sun Ra fanatics are going nuts over these discs, but always with the caveat that they’re for advanced Sun Ra listeners only. I’m not so sure that’s true because I’m really only now getting deeper into his music and these albums simply blew me away.
The first one I listened to was the fourth disc in the series, Dance of the Living Image. The tape it was mastered from was found in a box marked “Mexico City, 1/26/74” but instead it’s probably a rehearsal tape from San Francisco. The tape gets turned on and off abruptly, off when the things start to fall apart, then on again when inspiration flows and the musicians start to gel again. Hypnotic, syncopated, lumbering—almost dark—when the members of the group lock in, they seem to go through a psychic mind meld, especially during the final 17-minute long jam on disc one.
The Creator of the Universe, volume one in the series, I listened to next. The first CD (many of the Lost Reel Collections are two disc sets) is a live recording at a San Francisco warehouse with a long impassioned black power speech, with a blaring call and response from the horn section. It’s totally wild and eccentric. Sun Ra improvises brilliantly on a Moog synthesizer. Some of it sounds like PiL’s Metal Box or Krautrock. The second disc is a recording of a lecture given by Sun Ra at UC Berkeley in 1971. It’s out of the ballpark amazing. In one part of the speech, Sun Ra explains how the different races have different vibrations and different innate born talents and things they can each do better than the other races and why we should all respect one another, because of our differences as much as our commonality. It’s sweet, cosmic, funny, deep and everything you would hope a lecture by Sun Ra would be.
I could go on about this further, but why not sample a little Sun Ra yourself? Here’s an audio blog with links to a lot of Sun Ra material. And here are a couple of fantastic Sun Ra clips found on YouTube: