I’m just about to drop the needle on a Sun Ra compilation that came out last year called In the Orbit of Ra.
To the best of my knowledge, I have never, ever heard Sun Ra before.
Now, Sun Ra is one of those artist whose name seems to come up in all kinds of unexpected places. It seems like no matter what type of book about music I’m reading, someone references Sun Ra at some point. Equal parts brilliant and bizarre. Was he a genius, a madman, or both? Hell, maybe he really was from outer space. I can’t tell you anything new or interesting about the man that isn’t in a million other sources available online, but he was highly experimental and very influential. So let’s see what this is all about.
A little about this comp. It’s a double album, and if you buy the vinyl not only do you get the two records on heavyweight vinyl in a great, well annotated gatefold, but you get the whole thing on two CDs as well. Bonus. It appears based on the copyright dates that the performances included dates from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. It’s a quality production, something that was even commented on by the cashier at Easy Street who told me I was going to love it.
And he was right.
My initial impression of the very first song, “Somewhere In Space” (1960) is that it’s actually pretty straight forward jazz. But then “The Lady With the Golden Stockings” (1958/59) came on. Sure, it’s jazz, but I can’t get over a sort of Persian/Egyptian vibe to it, something slightly exotic while still remaining recognizable. With a brief stand-up bass solo… that slides into a rhythm section piece… then gets Middle Eastern again (I think it’s the flute…). Excellent. Then right into “Somebody Else’s World,” with some female vocals and a kind of African vibe (Holly just commented immediately after I wrote that – “Not as different as I was expecting. Sounds African.” Which may say something about how that song sounds… or about how long we’ve been listening to music together.). The side closes with “Plutonian Nights” (1958/59), which is intriguing… is that a stand-up bass being played with a bow? An impressive side of jazz, at least to the ears of this not jazz aficionado.
I’m not going to go through all four sides song by song, so let’s just say for a guy like me who doesn’t know anything about jazz but enjoys at least some Miles Davis, this is really good. Perfect Friday night cocktail drinking music. It got funky at times, like on “Rocket Number Nine Take Off For the Planet Venus” with its crazy trumpet, but it never got outright bizarre. And “Astro Black,” well, yeah. It’s out there. OK, some of this is actually pretty far out there. Especially on the second record… yeah… it got a little weird.
So all in all, I liked what I heard on In the Orbit of Ra. That doesn’t mean I’m going to run out and drop serious coin on some original Sun Ra recordings from the 1960s or anything, but if something else like this comes my way I’ll absolutely pick it up. Great music for a variety of occasions (most of which probably involve alcohol or what have you).