Look at your world – we’re glad it’s not our world…

It’s circling the drain…

By “it” I mean my subscription to eMusic and by “the drain”, I mean… well, you’re a bright lot, you work it out (it’s a metaphor)

After I think, 15 years I’ve pretty much had it with eMusic – there’s still a mountain of music to discover, but the site is barely maintained at all, there’s increasingly few records I actually know I want to buy there and if truth be told I’ve hung on for a few years now mainly due to a very generous “grandfather deal” they’ve not been able to get out of. It’s time.

It’s a great shame, I’ve bought so much terrific music for so long, very cheaply, and discovered so much stuff that I don’t think I would have got near, were it not for the site.

I’ve been umm-ing and ah-ing about it for months now. One of the reasons for the extended period of vacillation has been their extensive, near-bottomless well of great jazz records – it really is a still-glistening jewel in a battered and muddied old crown.

Of recent, I’ve been gradually renewing my relationship with the J word. The Sade / Blue Rondo fattened eighties, with its parade of fresh-faced ninnies clutching their copies of The Face, prancing around in pork pie hats and zoot suits have left their scars. Everyone was apparently something of a “jazz fiend”. And don’t get me started on those bloody hexagonal “drums”…

Thankfully, form is temporary, class is permanent, and it’s impossible to deny the works of Coltrane, Miles Davis and a whole host of other straight-up masterminds whose flairs and pinwheels I’m still too dull-witted to grasp properly.

Currently holding my focus at eMusic this weeks is an impressive catalogue of albums by the monumental Sun Ra…

Sun Ra

I clipped out a post about Sun Ra about a year ago (here, if you’re interested) but to be honest I was just at the start of a journey and barely knew what I was talking about (go on, I’ll wait…). But recently in an unprecedented spaffing away of credits, I’ve downloaded a full dozen of the Arkestra albums, bringing my personal haul to 15 – still only about a half of the records available on eMusic. (This itself is only a fraction of his recorded output.)

Fortuitously, last week a very good article about where to start with all this madness appeared in the Quietus which I heartily recommend and leaves you with no excuses at all… Hop on board – Zoom! Zoom!

And just so as you know where you’re going, have a watch of this French documentary (maybe skip the first 1:30 or so…):


Thing is quite a lot of Sun Ra’s output is straight-up hard and in many places pretty much impenetrable. Some of it is more than a little daft. And if you can’t be arsed to give it some attention, you’ll no doubt think it’s all just stewpid.

By now, however, you may know where I stand on precious souls that really don’t give a damn about looking ridiculous, who go right on and do it – my admiration knows no bounds (see Robert Wyatt, Daevid Allen, Beefheart…). And you can certainly add Sun Ra to this wayward bunch.

There are all sorts of parallels you can draw with Beefheart – both barking mad, both geniuses, both charismatic band leaders – but at this point the main similarity is both men’s willingness to caper around the brink of what most of us can enjoy, and then dive gleefully over the edge. For me, Beefheart’s best moments are when no matter how much strangeness is going on all over, you can still catch the basic snatches of the stuff you know and recognise – songs like “Electricity”, “Pachuco Cadaver” and “Bat Chain Puller” are downright weird, no question, but still stay within sight of the shore – brittle, bizarre moments of still-recognisable brilliance.

(Sun Ra was a child prodigy on the keyboard, mind – whereas Beefheart was a musical illiterate – I’m also not aware of the Arkestra being forced to live in a communal house and fed prison rations of lentils…)

But I think you can apply a similar rule of thumb to a lot of Sun Ra’s output – some of it’s crazy, some of it’s straight, but the best is somewhere in between.

For the sake of drawing easy lines, I’m going to divide his work into Impenetrable, Bonkers, Swinging and Beautiful. My favourite of the records I’ve discovered so far is this one, that I think you’d put in the last category, Languidity. And the title track may well be as good a place to start as any…



Released in 1978, it’s an album full of strange directions and melancholic explorations, fantastically good value for anyone who wants to piss away an afternoon, and an absolute universe away from any other record you associate with the Punk, post-punk and Two-Tone records occupying my deck in those days. Spin magazine apparently called it “a beautiful place to enter Ra’s psych-jazz omniverse” (bravo!) and I couldn’t agree more.

Ra, of course, had an obsessional affinity with space, starting when he had an out-of-body experience at college in ‘36 or ‘37 that prompted him to drop out of college and to claim from then on that he came from Saturn (rather than Alabama). His vision of space in his music is different from the one that became de rigeur in the seventies. His records are pregnant with oblique turns and rare, enchanting chaos that challenge and reassure you at the same time, and which do not follow many of the conventions of our times. I’d like to think that in the bars and saloons of Saturn, it’s Sun Ra playing on the jukebox rather than Hawkwind.

The other side of the Arkestra I’m enjoying hugely at the moment are the three records released on Ra’s own El Saturn label between 1956 and ’59 – Super-Sonic Jazz, Jazz by Sun Ra and Jazz in Silhouette. The following record, Interstellar Low Ways, from 1960 is also remarkable.

These are unmistakably “jazz” records (in the same way as the first couple of Magic Band records are unmistakable r’n’b fare) but they’re also not records that anyone else could’ve made, bathed as they are by the unmistakable bouquet of sulphur.

Here’s a live version of a track from the last of those records, “Somewhere in Space”, which is great on the record but which very much takes off on this version:


What a thing to see the Arkestra in those days.