Review: Sun Ra and his Arkestra: “In The Orbit Of Ra”

Marshall Allen Presents Sun Ra and his Arkestra: “In The Orbit Of Ra”
Strut Records
2CD/2LP or digital download

There is no precursor to Sun Ra, just before and after.

His sound, vision, and philosophy about creating music for the 21st century via the narrative of aliens documenting the struggle to exist on planet earth left a gargantuan well of artistic creativity from which to draw.

Daft-Punk, Parliament Funkadelic, Lady Gaga (with her reference of the line “Rocket Number Nine/ Take off for the Planet Venus” in her song “Venus”), David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust phase, Earth Wind & Fire, Deltron 3030, OutKast, Janelle Monae–just to name a few–all drank from that well and reaped financial and critical success, much more than the actual creator enjoyed during his lifetime. Moreover, many techno producers, especially from Detroit, reference Sun Ra as a inspirational, creative mentor.

Sun Ra, who would have turned 100 this year, was a composer. You can find his work in the avant-garde Jazz section of any record store.  As evidenced by the new release on Strut Records,  Marshall Allen Presents Sun Ra and his Arkestra: “In The Orbit of Ra,” we still have not fully caught up to the music. Marshall Allen, the current band leader and longest living member of the Arkestra (the ever-changing musical ensemble created by Sun Ra in the 1950s), along with the record label Art Yard, worked with Strut Records to select specific songs culled from over 200 albums by Sun Ra from the late 1950s through 1978. Beyond the fact that it’s a daunting body of work in scale and construction, it gives a fresh overview of the depth and breadth of Sun Ra’s vision.

“We started [wearing space costumes] back in Chicago,” Sun Ra mentioned in the book Space is the Place by John Szwed.  “In those days, I tried to make the black people, the so-called negroes, conscious of the fact that they live in a changing world. And because I thought that they were left out of everything culturally, that nobody had thought about bringing them in contact with the culture, none of the black leaders did that…. that’s why I thought I could make it clear to them that there are other things outside their closed environment. That’s what I tried with those clothes. I designed some of them myself. I did it because, just by seeing those clothes, the people could get an idea of what I meant.”

On this 20-song release, Strut pulls into clear focus variations on three directions in which Sun-Ra moved. The Big Band composer, the interstellar traveler, and the stride piano-playing bluesman were portals that gave distinct voice to so many sonic palettes and allowed Sun Ra to change and switch approach without hesitation.

On “Plutonian Nights,” “Island in the Sun,” “Planet Earth,”and “Rocket Number 9 Take off for Venus,” Sun Ra’s penchant for writing large chart Big Band jazz compositions rivaled without a doubt contemporaries such as Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus Big Band compositions.

With “Somebody Else’s World,” “Solar Differentials,” and “Astro Black,” tone colors become more contemplative and introspective by use of the intergalactic organ, mellophone, gong, space bird sounds, and reverb–all credited in the liner notes. “Dance of The Cosmo’s-Alien,” recorded live in Milan in 1978, captures Sun Ra using a synthesizer and drum machine, laying out a rough draft of what techno music would eventually evolve into. He was 64 at the time.

However Sun Ra had been experimenting with electronic sounds since the late 1950’s according to Marshall Allen in the liner notes. “Sun Ra wanted to hear all kinda sounds, electronic sounds before electronics were popular with sound. In the ‘50s, we had to duplicate electronic sounds on a conventional instrument. We didn’t have money to buy electronic instruments see, we had to take what we had and create the sounds.”

It has been well documented by electronic music producer Kirk Degiorgio that 1974 brought the first recorded techno song. It was “Nobu” by Herbie Hancock. He was 34. It seems technology and tastes had finally caught up to what Sun Ra had heard.

For all the other-worldly presentations in theory, “Trying To Put The Blame on Me” features a simple and beautiful stride piano,  and musings on how weird the world can be for anyone who has been treated as, or just may be, an alien. “Have You Heard the Latest News from Neptune” captures the Arkestra in full Jimmy Smith organ-funk swing.

As Sun Ra would say, the music is here.” Are the ears ready for it? Hopefully so.