Sunshine and showers

A new set of Sun Ra reissues shows the best and worst of the man from Saturn. Phil Johnson boldly goes into his cosmos
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The Independent Culture

The albums of the late bandleader Sun Ra are almost as numerous as stars in the night sky, and perhaps as likely to disappoint as to thrill unless you're an unusually committed Ra-ophile, in which case you have to have the whole Milky Way's worth. This month, the distributor Harmonia Mundi releases a new batch of five titles by Ra on the Evidence label, which, as it holds the rights to Ra's own Saturn catalogue, is as close to a kitemark of quality as you get.

The albums of the late bandleader Sun Ra are almost as numerous as stars in the night sky, and perhaps as likely to disappoint as to thrill unless you're an unusually committed Ra-ophile, in which case you have to have the whole Milky Way's worth. This month, the distributor Harmonia Mundi releases a new batch of five titles by Ra on the Evidence label, which, as it holds the rights to Ra's own Saturn catalogue, is as close to a kitemark of quality as you get.

Probably the best of the bunch is the splendidly titled Languidity, a 1978 set released originally on the Philly Jazz label, which has long been something of a rare-groove classic because of DJs using excerpts as break-beats. The five tracks, all between six and ten minutes long, offer a decidedly superior glimpse into the Ra sound-world at a time when his big band was getting funkier than ever before, and the leader had upgraded his old-school electric keyboards to include Arp and Moog synths as well as Fender Rhodes piano and Yamaha and Hammond B3 organs. The music drifts beautifully in and out of focus, keeping to a swaying, danceable beat, while Ra stalwarts John Gilmore on tenor sax and Marshall Allen on alto play relatively brief solos of great beauty.

When Angels Speak of Love from 1966 is the rarest of all the Saturn LPs, and one of the few remaining copies apparently reached $1,200 on an internet auction site recently. While that may be true, the album still isn't something you'd want to listen to every day, although its historical importance in documenting the influence of the avant-garde "New Thing" on Ra's evolving aesthetic is undeniable. Against the pulse-free, echo-laden backings of percussive bits and bobs in the opening track, trumpeter Walter Miller can be heard blowing up a storm, as if prefiguring Miles Davis's later electric bands, while the subsequent material represents an uneasy marriage between Ra's old-timey syncopated piano and the free-jazz measures of bass, drums and the 10-piece band, whose saxophone section gets defiantly squeaky. For all that, there's some marvellous music.

Pathways to Unknown Worlds/Friendly Love couples a rare Impulse album from 1975 with a previously unreleased 1973 recording, and it's largely post-New Thing, with ruminative squawks and squelches, and rolling-thunder drums continuing rather excessively for what sometimes seems like hours. The opening track of Friendly Love features some killer Ra synth sounds, however. The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums is a double-CD set combining two Impulse sessions that were never released, and while complaining about Ra's excesses may be akin to criticising Finnegans Wake for not telling a straightforward story, you can easily see why some nameless exec decided to keep them in the closet. Letting them out again is unlikely to change the world but it will please Ra devotees. For the rest of us, there's yet more outré keyboard sounds and a few killer riffs.

For a simple digest of Sun Ra's diverse charms, the compilation Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel is hard to beat. A mid-price compendium from various sources, it runs the whole gamut from mad to funky and back again, including an irresistible vocal chorus on "Rocket Number Nine Takes Off for the Planet Venus", which says it all, really. As if this wasn't enough Sun Ra to be getting on with, the revamped ESP-Disk label (an unlikely Sixties attempt to yoke together propaganda for the Esperanto language with the cause of free jazz) has just re-released the famous Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, vols 1&2. Perhaps because of the label's avowed aim to let its artists record whatever they wished, the albums are more like art-music than usual, although whether this is a good thing is open to question. I'd stick with the funk of Languidity.

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