Zoom! Zoom! Zoom! Zoom! Up in the air!

Most years at about this time, I do some sort of snivelling post about feeling like I should be doing a review of the year’s releases or rounding up gig highlights, but then , regular as Christmas, I go off in some other random direction.

I appear to be powerless…

So, anyway, a recent discovery that the nothing if not unpredictable Emusic has something like 150 Sun Ra albums stacked up in its dusty shelves, has prompted what started off as a tentative toe-dipping into another universe but is now rapidly turning into something of a full-on Arkestra bombing.

The man who prompted sober social commentator George Clinton to comment “This boy was definitely out to lunch” has a pretty intimidating reputation and a somehow more daunting back catalogue that I’m unlikely ever to get too far with.

But at the same time, if you accept that this is one river the opposite banks of which you’re never going to reach (and are also willing to overlook the extending of an unconvincing aquatic metaphor), it’ll be OK, believe me. I know this because I’ve spent the weekend lolling around on my flowery plastic inflatable, figurative mojito in hand, novelty sunglasses sliding down my nose, being biffed back and forth by some of the strangest bluebeats there are. And it’s OK.

I’m doing my darndest to avoid the J word, but I should speak plainly here – these are, well, Jazz records, and this can be a bit of a problem. After spending a lot of my early twenties fancying myself a bit of a Jazz-fiend and pretty much OD-ing on Charlie Parker records, I’ve struggled to give Jazz a fair hearing ever since – the late eighties were, after all, an age when apparently rational people were buying Sade records, and, lordee, it’s a long way back from there… So, if this is a problem for you (and, I hear you…), I’ll bid you a rueful farewell and see you in the next post.

But if you’re still with me, here are seven stonking and stonkingly weird Sun Ra tracks that I’ve recently discovered…

Sun Ra

Lucky Seven – Sun Ra

Aside from the fact he was apparently born on Saturn (It’s true – I’ve checked it) and liked a headdress or two, I’m not going to pretend I know a whole lot about Sun Ra, in fact I’ve put this together with almost no research (go on, it’s Christmas…). I’ve written a few thoughts on each track as I’ve been listening but if you want some background before trying them, watch this (it really takes off at about 26:15):

 

Universe in Blue

This gawkily moody organ-led piece apparently originated from a regular spot the Arkestra had at “Slug’s Saloon” in the Lower East Side, playing every week from 1966 onwards, often doing seven-hour sets that would finish at 4:00 AM. It’s a live recording and does sound like an early hours, ghostly meander built over many months and wouldn’t be out of place weaving eerily through the corridors of Dr Phibes’ castle. It’s clunky, it’s technicolour…

Plutonian Nights

This is irresistible. The darkest of horn riffs make the hairs on your legs rise and your socks slide weakly down into your boots. There’s crafty bass and sax solos during the course of the track but you find yourself waiting for the return of that great rasping chin-jutting horn. Only a heart-breaking four and a half minutes long…

Astro Black

This is pretty unconventional… There are vocals here (although hardly orthodox) and initially a skittish double bass that scampers around June Tyson’s strident, dogged tones, but they’re fighting something of a rear-guard action surrounded by great chunks of dissonant noise and waves of industrial-sounding drone. Once the bass and vocals wander dolefully offstage, you’re pretty much on your own, left to fend for yourself in the face of an 11-minute assault of … erm… “free jazz” interplay.

Ancient Aethiopia

Driven on by thundering Hammer-horror drum beats and snarling, grandly-riffing horns, this is a gorgeous journey through the bush, led initially by twin flutes that cross paths with each other and frequently step on each other’s toes. The uneasy harmony is regularly broken by jarring percussive intrusions and only partially soothed by the sax and piano pieces that succeed the flutes. You find yourself clinging optimistically to those bass and drum rhythms and the voices that do eventually make themselves heard are not exactly promising…

Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus

Starting off like any furiously-played jazz standard, (albeit one announcing the departure of today’s commuter to the stars), you find yourself bombarded by a series of pulsing horn riffs that dance recklessly around you until you are giddy. From there the excursion veers off into less familiar bass tones, which once they start to be bowed become odder and odder. The call for the next stop brings you back down to Earth (even if “… the second stop is Jupiter, the second stop is Jupiter, the second stop is Jupiter…”)

Mayan Temples

This is a lumbering beast of a track, powered by those hoarse, bellowing horns and a gently insistent bass line. There are the twin flutes again and some weird organ and keyboard work that sounds like clinking and latterly smashing glasses. The pace never picks up and it’s another forbidding journey into an unsettling Kurtz-ian world, beset by distracting, contrary percussive work that trudges and labours somewhere off-camera. It’s another live performance, taken from the “Of Mythic Worlds” album which, on the record at least, is then followed by this:

Over the Rainbow

Yes, it’s the Wizard of Oz standard, although for the first minute or so, it’s not really recognisable as such. In fact, although the Arkestra treatment does involve it moving in and out of focus, alternating between tunefulness and weirdness, with varying degrees of the Ra-filter, he does treat it with a genuine fondness. There’s a discernible gasp of relief and applause from the audience when he allows the song a cheeky run of its own.

And there you are, seven belters from the enormous back-catalogue of an errant virtuoso. Another 140-odd albums to collect, so you’ll have to excuse me – I’ve got a rocket to catch…

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