The Best of Sun Ra
"Sun Ra? He's out to lunch alright — same place I eat at."
— George Clinton
Lone prospector, swingin 'shaman and lovable nut, Sun Ra was the Afro-psychedelic Ancient Astronaut of the jazz avant-garde, piloting his Arkestra through the World of Tomorrow. Born Herman Blount in 1914 Birmingham, Alabama, Ra mythologized himself as a cosmic prophet (home planet: Saturn), pioneered the artist-owned indie label and atonal collective-improvised orchestral noise, dressed himself and his band in the spangliest Flash Gordon garb a shoestring cult-bandleader could afford. The jazz establishment looked the other way as if embarrassed by a dotty uncle.
Brilliantly synthesizing Monk, Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie's Cubop big band and soundtrack exotica in his Chicago-based late-'50s Myth-Science Arkestra; pushing outward big-time after moving to New York in his Solar period; pioneering electronic keyboards and African percussion in his Astro-Infinity and Intergalactic Research bands, Ra composed terrific, serious tunes — but none have made it into the jazz canon. Whatever. Ra kept sailing his Arkestral ship, an utterly sincere, maximalist Wagnerian romantic, part of jazz tradition and yet apart from it, a man not so much ahead of his time as outside of it.
And then in the mid '70s Ra reinvented himself. Mr. Outside became ringmaster of the Greatest Show on Nine Planets, putting fun and funk back into a music that took itself way too seriously. Ra's high-spirited interstellar-gutbucket revues not only featured thundering Afro-percussion, roiling noise and Ra's own pyrotechnic Cecil Taylor-meets-Jimi Hendrix organ solos, but also in-the-pocket blues 'n 'boogie-woogie, punk-paced, by-the-book swing classics direct from Ellington and Fletcher Henderson — and, crucially, revival-meeting space-chants that reduced big-band antiphony to its deeply funky essence in spirituals, field hollers and ring-shouts — Ra and band, propelled by irresistible second-line rhythms, paraded through dumbstruck, laughing audiences, chanting "If you find Earth boring/ Just the same old same thing/ Come on, sign up with Outer Spaceways Incorporated."
In a final confounding act, the Sun Ra who'd preached Eternal Being, died. His spirit and genius live on in a bewilderingly vast cosmos of recordings.