Black man in the cosmos

AFRO-SURREAL: All hail an interplanetary stream of Sun Ra reissues


AFRO-SURREAL "The Black Man in the Cosmos" wasn't among the course offerings when I attended the University of California-Berkeley. The class was taught once, in 1971, by musician/composer Sun Ra (1914-93), whose lectures might include topics like the outer space origins of ancient Egypt, conceptualized as a black African culture. This cosmic tradition has a long history, particularly in Chicago, where Ra lived from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, and where Elijah Muhammad used it as the founding mythos of the Nation of Islam. Ra claimed to have influenced the NOI, though he rejected its conclusions, much as he would later criticize the Black Power movement he helped foster as too materialist.

Ra's "Black Man" lectures — one of which recently surfaced on The Creator of the Universe (Transparency, 2007) — epitomize why he wasn't taken seriously for so long. Critics who appreciated the severity of Ornette Coleman or the ferocity of Albert Ayler couldn't accommodate the mischievous mysticism of a man who claimed to come from Saturn. Instead of playing the role of brooding artiste, Ra favored extravagant showmanship, cloaking ultimately stern spiritual messages in language as absurd as the science-fictional garb worn by his Arkestra. His strategies included Joycean deformations of words based on false etymologies and sound play. "Arkestra" itself characteristically mixes the spiritual (Ark of the Covenant) with the quotidian. According to John Szwed's definitive 1998 biography, Space is the Place, this was how "orchestra" was pronounced in Ra's native Birmingham, Ala.

Yet the strangeness of Ra's music may have been the biggest stumbling block. His prodigious output is extremely diverse, continually vioutf8g unquestioned dichotomies. A product of the 1930s big band scene, when he led an orchestra under his terrestrial name Herman "Sonny" Blount, Ra was at the forefront of free jazz, yet he shocked fans and foes alike when, at its height, he began incorporating tight arrangements of swing classics by Fletcher Henderson, Ellington, and others into his sound.

Ra's lifelong interest in synthesizers — there's a photo of him with a primitive one in 1941(!) — developed into a command of pure sound. He adapted his style to the nuances of a particular keyboard. The 1970 recording Night of the Purple Moon (Atavistic, 2007), for instance, is a quartet disc on which he plays baroque runs on the Rocksichord, a 1960s electric harpsichord. The 1978 recording Disco 3000 (Art Yard, 2008), a live quartet performance, features Ra's organ-like drones on the obscure, loop-enabled Crumar Mainman. Unlike some synth wizards, Ra was a virtuoso pianist, with a lightning-fast right hand and a left hand that seemingly bounced around of its own volition. While unafraid to mash the keys with his forearm, Ra's ambidextrous precision and unorthodox chord voicings — he was unafraid to mash the keys with his forearm — place him among the top players of his time. If he'd worn a suit and stuck to piano, he'd be ranked with the likes of Art Tatum, as is evident from his previously-unreleased recital Solo Piano: Teatro la Fenice Venizia (Golden Years, 2003), possibly the best such recording.

Big bands remained Ra's ideal, though they were giving way to smaller bop combos by the time he formed the Arkestra in the mid-'50s. Yet his insularity resulted in some of his most original works, discs that defy generic categories, like 1963's reverb-drenched, proto-psychedelic Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy (Evidence, 1992), 1965's percussive, minimalist Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, v.

Also from this author

  • Stalin: Darkness Visible

    With his new album, Bay Area boss J.Stalin shines a light on Bay Area rap — and his own 12-year career

  • The secret life of Sylvia Fein

    The 94-year-old painter comes to terms with her surreality in a new retrospective

  • Break on through

    Michael McClure reflects on his "beast language" classic

  • Also in this section

  • Good things, small packages

    33 1/3, the ultimate record collector's novella series, turns 10

  • No thanks, Bono

    Three new albums that should magically appear on your iPod in place of Songs of Innocence

  • A show a day: Your fall music calendar

    FALL ARTS 2014 Like a daily multivitamin, your recommended dose of live shows through November