Saturnian jazz godhead leaves Earth’s orbit.
Stevie Chick 2012-01-19
Herman Blount was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but by the time he began composing and performing as Sun Ra, he believed that he hailed from the ringed planet Saturn. And if that’s a little hard to swallow, well, maybe you haven’t listened to the many dozens of albums he recorded. Ra’s discography was as eclectic as it was voluminous, encompassing jazz standards and avant-garde experiments, pop songs and piano pieces. All of that output, however, was clearly the work of a singular, unique genius, one who was Not Of This Earth.
By the time Ra recorded Space Is the Place in 1972, many of his contemporaries in jazz were also exploring the very Outer Reaches he’d made his own several years earlier. But even in the era of free jazz and fusion, Ra was plotting his own path. Images, for example, begins as playful piano sketch, building to a big band swing that veers queasily, like a roller-coaster trolley threatening to leave the track. Trumpeter Akh Tal Ebah fires off frantic peals while tenor sax-man John Gilmore lays down cooler ‘bop’ lines, blurring eras and schools of jazz into a new sound all its own. Sea of Sounds, meanwhile, is an abstract overload of free improv with the Astro Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra’s horns squealing and blurting and squawking, and Ra delivering flurries of extra-terrestrial communiqués via his ‘space organ’.
If all this sounds like unlistenable noise, it’s not; indeed, Space is possibly Ra’s most-accessible outing, a fine entry point to his world(s). It’s centred around a 21-minute opening title-track, an incantatory paean to the cosmos which opens like a bristling big-band swing number: Gilmore, June Tyson and the miscellaneous voices of the Arkestra gospelise to the galaxies, as horns and organs grow ever more cacophonic. But there’s little fury here; as loud and wild as Space Is the Place grows, the mood is always spiritual, ecstatic, transcendent, some glorious fusion between the strange and the profound. It’s Sun Ra’s ultimate anthem, espousing the fusion of science fiction and ancient myth with the panoply of jazz that would seduce Sun Ra fans on rock’s innovative vanguard, the likes of the MC5, Sonic Youth and Primal Scream.