Ra’s Return from the Sun
Sun Ra, the prolific experimental jazz pianist who made his name after an abduction by extraterrestrials that took him to Saturn, seems to have risen from the dead with the release of In the Orbit of Ra, 20 years after suffering a stroke and dying in a Birmingham hospital. His musical career spanned over six decades, around 200 albums, film appearances, world tours, and the start of his own record label. He even orchestrated a 100-piece concert at the pyramids in Egypt and influenced several musicians and musical styles. This album exemplifies 20 of his and his Arkestra’s expansive musical career and further solidifies his immortality, and is a must listen for anybody who considers themselves a fan of experimental music.
In the Orbit of Ra starts its first album off with “Somewhere in Space” — a lounge-like jazz composition that serves as a brilliant introduction to the star trek to come. Each song is presented with a different variation of the Arkestra, from his Solar Myth Arkestra to his Myth Science Arkestra with only the wild space themes and enigmatic sway of wild jazz passion as a uniting theme. The album continues on its jazz-fueled take-off with the simple, yet elegant piano backed by a tribalesque drum beat, odd noises, and waling saxophone and flute solos that conjure images of wild alien foliage and strange extraterrestrial dancing in songs such as “The Lady with the Golden Stockings” and “Spontaneous Simplicity.” The experimentation of Sun Ra and his Arkestras furthers with some of the earliest uses of electronic keyboards and Moog synthesizers in songs like “Somebody Else’s World” that also incorporates mystic tribal chants and prophesies of the future. While some of the songs on this album are more lounge jazz inspired, others would make Frank Zappa and John Zorn shout in delight, as well as any fans of the two iconic experimental musicians. Songs like “Take Off for Planet Venus” combine old-time blues, ragtime, and jazz with wild music, eccentric time signatures, and bursts of saxophone bravado.
The second album starts with “Astro Black” and the feeling of being on some large star-ship that breathes and beeps before a haunting voice interrupts to talk about concepts of space and immortality. This album is decidedly marked by more live performances such as one from Milan (“ Dance of the Cosmo Aliens”) and Rome (“Trying to Put the Blame on Me”). These recordings don’t suffer from quality loss like a lot of live recordings from the ’60s and ’70s, but go on to show that the quality of Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s performances were pure gold. “Reflects Motion” presents wild drums and a haunting rhythmic chant enough to make mental interstellar travel completely capable, leaving the listener feeling like a psychedelic trip is on the horizon. Part two of “Reflects Motion” is the peak of the trip transporting the spirit to a wild and distant world.
The album ends with “We Travel the Spaceways,” indicating that Sun Ra is indeed not dead, but rather traveling the spaceways. This double-album is a complete masterpiece and walk-through of Sun Ra’s influential and bizarre mind-frame as well as interstellar travels. It is a necessary listen for any fan of experimental music in general and is an exploration into the roots of the brilliant minds of Zappa, Zorn, and even Mike Patton. From Birmingham to Saturn, Sun Ra will live on and consistently displays that he may well have been sent from outer space to bring harmony to an otherwise destructive world.