“To Those of Earth… and Other Worlds”

sun ra

Gilles Peterson presents Sun Ra and his Arkestra

subn ra 2

Sun Ra was the original space cadet. Claiming from the word go that he originated from the planet Saturn and was only visiting this planet not only diverted attention away from the weird music he and his band composed, but diverted critical energy away from racism: if people are busy saying how weird you are, it’s better than insulting the colour of your skin. It also meant he was less likely to have to discuss his sexuality or the way the band lived in a tightly-run commune together.

Not only was much of the big band music Sun Ra composed ‘out there’, it was also often self-released in now very highly collectable small editions, sometimes with hand-painted covers, sometimes in plain white sleeves. There were hundreds of overlapping and differently edited releases. Over the years these have been documented, collected and partly reissued on CD, alongside new albums of previously unheard gigs and studio outtakes and rarities. Space imagery abounds throughout his discography, but Sun Ra was a restless and ever-changing musician, and the sci-fi album and track titles often hide a wide variety of sounds and styles, from Ellingtonian big-band jazz through chamber ensemble work to freeform wigouts and synthesized noise.

It is this array of musical styles, and the vast choice of material available that is often a hindrance to would-be fans and potential listeners. Fans of Sonic Youth who listen to the band eulogising Sun Ra’s experiments, can all too easily end up listening to an album of solo bop piano or mainstream jazz, and wonder what all the fuss is about. Jazz fans don’t like the extended synthesizer explorations that sound like massed hoovers at dawn. Others with broader listening tastes simply don’t know where to begin.

There have been several attempts at anthologising Ra’s music, or at least attempted ‘beginners guides to…’, including Sun Ra’s own personal selection on the Blast First/Mute title Out There a Minute and the Evidence label’s compilation Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel (both highly recommended), and now DJ Gilles Peterson gets in on the act with his personal selection, courtesy of the Strut/Art Yard label, which includes never before released material to lure fans like me in.

Truth be told, it’s a bit tame for my taste, and you can see from the music here how Peterson might have come to Sun Ra through the chill out rooms of dance clubs. The bulk of the CD is the more soulful [or doo-woppier] end of Ra’s vocal work, with some gentle rhythmic experiments in sound, that out of context here sometimes come across as lounge music or exotica than out-jazz. Thankfully some of the Arkestra’s funky space chants and more textural pieces are included later on, spicing up the overall blandness in tone which Peterson has curated. There’s far too much electric piano here, too much of the studio noodling which mars many Ra releases. Peterson is apparently an avid collector of Ra’s discography, and was also allowed unlimited access to the Arkestra’s sound and tape archive, so it’s especially disappointing that this double CD comes across as a little samey and rather ersatz.

Bring back the glitter and starshine! The rocket-fuelled travel between worlds is far more preferable to this gently interstellar glide on offer. Space may be the place but not this version.

© Rupert Loydell 2015


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