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BBC Radio 3

A centenary celebration for Sun Ra

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Recorded in session for Jazz on 3 at Livingston Studios, London on 18 June 2014

About a year ago Jez Nelson handed me an interview he had done with Sun Ra in 1990. I still remember where I was when I listened to it, and the sheer inspiration I felt afterwards. I had been aware of Sun Ra's music and his strange sci-fi persona, but didn't quite get how the two fitted together. But on closer listening, and subsequent reading the penny dropped – here was a true visionary with a complete view of music as a force for social change.

Jez Nelson reflects on his interview with the jazz musician and composer Sun Ra in 1990.

That interview forms the central spine of the documentary "Travelling the Spaceways; the Cult of Sun Ra”, broadcast earlier this month on Radio 4 (available to listen again here). In it we discover Ra the visionary bandleader and hear how he drew on Egyptology, Theosophy and other occult texts to lay the foundations for what has become known as Afro-futurism: an artistic movement spanning literature, music and visual art.

But by focusing on Ra the myth-maker, we risk missing his most important legacy: the music itself. He is rightly seen as a pioneer of free jazz, yet no matter how far out his music got, he never lost sight of swing. The dance tradition which grew out of the Chicago big band era which Ra was part of, and which continues to power his band, The Arkestra.

That interview forms the central spine of the documentary 'Travelling the Spaceways; the Cult of Sun Ra', broadcast earlier this month on Radio 4 (listen to the programmehere). In it we discover Ra the visionary bandleader and hear how he drew on Egyptology, Theosophy and other occult texts to lay the foundations for what has become known as Afro-futurism: an artistic movement spanning literature, music and visual art.

But by focusing on Ra the myth-maker, we risk missing his most important legacy: the music itself. He is rightly seen as a pioneer of free jazz, yet no matter how far out his music got, he never lost sight of swing. The dance tradition which grew out of the Chicago big band era which Ra was part of, and which continues to power his band, The Arkestra.

We wanted to record The Arkestra for Jazz on 3, and initially considered capturing them live in concert. After all they’d be touring prolifically in this centenary year and it’s a live setting in which the band are at their most potent, combining visuals, dancing, poetry and costume to transport the audience and induce what I can best describe as a collective trance.

However I discovered that while there have been plenty of live recordings of the band, including many low-fi or bootleg tapes, there’s been very little in the way of high quality studio recordings since Sun Ra’s passing in 1993.  So with the radio audience in mind we decided to invite The Arkestra into the studio. And in keeping with their collaborative spirit, to introduce them to one of the UK’s finest improvising saxophonists: Shabaka Hutchings. He has written an account of his experience here.

Shabaka rehearsing with the Arkestra

In the course of making these programmes I’ve met lots of people who did everything they could to share the music of Sun Ra: promoters who drove thousands of miles to get the Arkestra to concerts, musicians who gave up far more lucrative gigs to be in the band. None more so than alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, now 90, who has played this music for 50 years and now leads the band. I’ve also discovered a wealth of music and ideas which I shall continue to savour – and share – for some time. 

I hope you enjoy the music.

Hear the full broadcast of the Sun Ra Arkestra in session for Jazz on 3 on Monday 30 June at 11pm, or listen again for 7 days after broadcast on the Radio 3 web site. You can also listen to Travelling the Spaceways: the Cult of Sun Ra on the Radio 4 web site.

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