|Sun Ra, American original — even if he maintained he was from outer space
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If there's an overused word of the day, it's "genius." Everyone's a genius: overlooked, mad, Mac — or, if they're legitimate and lucky, MacArthur.
And then there's Sun Ra. Born in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914, he absorbed the big-band sounds of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson (whom he would later join) but spun their influences into something entirely new and bold to become a singular American figure — even if he maintained that he was from Saturn.
Now, with Sun Ra and his Arkestra: At Inter-Media Arts, April 1991 (Modern Harmonic), a 25-year-old concert just released on double-CD and triple-vinyl, the bandleader's — yes — genius is on full display yet again. If Other Music on East 4th Street, a virtual shrine to the iconoclast, hadn't sadly closed earlier this year, they might've thrown a record-release party on account of this.
The stirring performance was recorded at the now shuttered Huntington, New York, nonprofit arts center — a blue dot in a red county in the Bush Sr. era. Ra was two years from his death at 79 and, unbelievably, according to Howard Mandel's valuable liner notes, recovering from a stroke just two months earlier. Ra's piano playing — chameleon, off-kilter — is on fine display, even more surprising since, according to his biographer John Szwed, his left hand was at least partially paralyzed by that stroke.
The two-hour set opens with a version of the Sun Ra–penned "Springtime Again," both hopeful and, in June Tyson's vocal rendition, mournful. (As Mandel reveals in the liner notes, she had recently been diagnosed with cancer and would succumb to it less than two years later.) If you didn't know what you were listening to, you might mistake it for Kamasi Washington's own triple album from last year, the through-line clear.
Tyson, like the rest of the Arkestra — on this night, eighteen strong, and many living together in a house in Philadelphia — has been perennially underrated. Ra's band was not "tight" in the conventional sense; rather, they were so well schooled, disciplined, technically gifted, and versatile that their imprecision was in fact precise.
The set varies between the traditional — after all, Sun Ra was steeped in black musical tradition — and the outlandish; kitsch and edge. "Hocus Pocus" is a swing number that shows off the superlative talent of John Gilmore, but on clarinet, not his usual tenor saxophone. "The Mayan Temples" thrashes and crashes with percussion on top of percussion and not one but two improvising flautists. (Who has two flautists in his band?) Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss," in the Arkestra's hands, turns into honking avant-balladry.
After the intermission, it's more swirling tempest and drive ("Planet Earth Day" and "Carefree," Sun Ra breaking out the synthesizer on both) alternating with woozy sweetness (as on Johnny Mercer's "Early Autumn") as well as the downright goofy, like "East of the Sun," a tune written in the 1930s for a Princeton University a cappella group.
This irreverence, the hallmark of Ra's radical career, was a blessing and a curse. He was allergic to trends and movements — to a fault, commercially. But he became a pillar of Afrofuturism, a proto-fusionist, a precursor to free jazz. He anticipated r&b and funk. He did everything, and often before anyone else. (He used an electric piano, for instance, more than ten years before Miles Davis.) He was outré, even in the freewheeling jazz world, which often shunned him. His influence can be seen in musicians as varied as Anthony Braxton and George Clinton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Maurice White. He wrote poetry and recited it to music — maybe he was the first MC — and was political in those words, and in stance and gesture.
This 1991 set was Sun Ra, late-career but at his finest, traversing his interests and time itself. It was neither his last concert nor his best. It was simply a riveting two-hour performance from a man, and his collective, who never compromised, never pandered, was always fresh, exacting, and revelatory. There's a word for that.