Black man in the cosmos - Page 2

AFRO-SURREAL: All hail an interplanetary stream of Sun Ra reissues
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1 (Esp, 2006), or 1967's Strange Strings (Atavistic, 2007), on which the Arkestra, with no prior experience, plays various non-Western stringed instruments, accompanied by bells, tympani, sheet-metal lightning.

While the atonal Strings may be Ra's least typical album, it embodies two of his main concerns. On the one hand, he was a tone colorist in the Romantic tradition, seeking unusual instrumentation to produce unique shades. But as that album's untutored string section suggests, he was a highly conceptual composer — garnering attention from John Cage and others — known for arranging and conducting collective improvisation. Traditional/avant-garde, inside/outside: such oppositions didn't exist for Ra, who even explored a "low" genre like disco on 1980's tongue-in-cheek On Jupiter (Art Yard, 2008).

The bewildering amount of Sun Ra reissues stems from his habit of self-recording, which also dates from the 1940s. Had he not done so, albums like Strings and Cosmic Tones wouldn't have been recorded. Nor would they have been released without his forming El Saturn Records, among the earliest artist-run labels. Given that his technological futurism seemed to stem from his preoccupation with outer space, Ra's artistic achievements are perhaps inextricably bound to his cosmic consciousness. As with Prince, artistic activity was driven by extramusical concerns, which, if they result in an occasional lapse in "good taste," nonetheless are the ingredients that elevate Ra from artistic excellence to genius. This genius may not have given him more than a subsistence living, but it has made him immortal. Unless, of course, as an inhabitant of Saturn, he already was.

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