SUN RA / “Stars Fell On Alabama”
Say Sun Ra’s name to a jazz fan who doesn’t actually know his music and you’re likely to get a little groaning and grimacing. The man seems to be viewed as either a ceaseless iconoclast or a harmless clown. The former view focuses on Sun Ra’s eccentricities: the costumes, the beard-paint, the obsession with all things otherworldly, the claim that he was born on Saturn, etc. The latter view focuses on a particular period of recordings made mostly during the ‘70s, when ‘out’ sounds were in. The truth is, behind Sun Ra’s eccentric nature and his sometimes avant-garde music lies one of the truly great jazz composers and band-leaders of the 20th century.
To review a body of work as extensive as Sun Ra’s calls more for a well-researched book than a hastily-written blog entry, so I won’t even attempt a career retrospective. Instead, I want to focus on a pair of unusual albums that Sun Ra recorded for the A&M label back in the late 1980s—Blue Delight and Purple Night. Interestingly, what makes these albums unusual is how conventional they are. By the mid-‘80s, Sun Ra had apparently gone about as ‘out’ as he could go. Beginning with 1987’s Reflections In Blue, Sun Ra began to record pop standards by the likes of Gershwin, Kern and Mancini. His original compositions took on a more light, mainstream feel as well. After listening to Sun Ra’s later music, the overall feeling I’m left with is of having had a pleasant time. (And I don’t mean that in a pejorative way at all. The older I get, the more I actually value pleasantness.) Still though, Sun Ra is Sun Ra. Even at his most conformist, Sun Ra’s music has an off-kilter sensibility and an undertone of spirituality that separates it from most anything else you might hear.
At the time Sun Ra recorded Blue Delight and Purple Night, one knew what to expect from a new Sun Ra album. It would likely be hastily-recorded on equipment of incidental quality. It would consist of two or three very long pieces of experimental-sounding future-jazz. The cover art would reference outer space—perhaps a vintage sketch of planetary pathways or a fuzzy reproduction of moon craters. The two A&M albums confounded all expectations. They were extraordinarily well-produced and packaged. The CD booklets included not only a complete personnel listing (including each song’s featured soloists) but also a seating chart. These albums are among the very few times that Sun Ra and Co. were ever afforded the luxury of recording with the highest quality equipment and in the highest quality facilities.
Sun Ra seems to have risen to the challenge (if he even viewed it that way). His original compositions are tightly focused with distinct moods and melodies. The songs aren’t necessarily ‘statements,’ but they aren’t experiments either. “Purple Night Blues” sounds like something Monk might’ve conceived but never recorded. “Sunrise” and “Journey Towards Stars” are minor miracles: dream-like sound paintings that seem to assemble and disassemble of their own volition. (By the way, the guitarist on most of these tunes is New Orleans’ Carl LeBlanc, who has recorded and performed with Kalamu’s Word Band.)
The covers are extravagant and gorgeous. Mancini and Mercer’s “Days Of Wine And Roses” features most of Sun Ra’s big band comping along as if they were small club piano trio. The ten-minute version of “Stars Fell On Alabama” is even better. Sun Ra sings the old love song word-for-word (it dates back to 1934), but because of who Sun Ra is, and what America is, he evokes feelings that have nothing to do with the lyrics. I listen to “Stars Fell” and I think of Southern slaves using the stars as escape routes; I think of a black man who went to his grave claiming to have been born on a ringed planet hundreds of millions of miles away from Earth; and, honestly, I think of a pretty love song too, because that’s “Stars Fell” actually is.
For most independent artists, recording for a major label is disastrous. For Sun Ra, it turned out to be fortuitous. The man’s discography is virtually endless, but the two A&M albums are among the best he ever recorded. Unfortunately for jazz fans, in the late 1990s A&M went out of business and it took Blue Delight and Purple Night with it. Today, the CDs are only available on the used market and they’re usually expensive at that. If you can find a copy of either album for under $20, pick it up. You won’t be disappointed.
Next week, more Sun Ra.
—Mtume ya Salaam
the doctor is out—wayyyyy out!
I guess—and am willing to bet—BoL is the only music blog that on the last day of 2006 features both James Brown and Sun Ra along with covers of “I (Who Have Nothing).” This a negroidal week: exactly how one should salute the past and usher in the future. Aesthetically, within the realm of music, it’s hard to get blacker than this on the North American continent, by which I mean not the melanin count of the players but the imaginations and values embodied in the music.
Right now I’m just riffing off the top of the dome. Mtume’s words; he only knows Sun Ra through recordings. Never done a two hour interview session like I have. Never got a send off on the way to Africa by a full Sun Ra “Space Is The Place” concert; never heard the band in a park in Atlanta doing Walt Disney numbers and yall thought Prince was doing something with that yo-E-yo-E-yo seven dwarfs shit, you should of heard Sun Ra; never even watched saxophonist Marshall Allen lie down on his back and blow to the high heavens; not to mention watch Sun Ra freak out a riverboat full of revelers in the middle of the Mississippi River at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival; or keep Rashann Roland Kirk guessing and asking his wife “what was that” in a park in Philly as the brass men play their horns by unscrewing the valves on the instruments and manually pulling and pushing the valves in and out their horns instead of fingering the keys. No. You see Mtume only knows Sun Ra from the records, so of course he is to be excused for focusing on some of the more “accessible” Sun Ra—you don’t have to love Sun Ra to enjoy these Sun Ra recordings.
Trying to (without any previous experience of hearing Sun Ra) "cold listen" to the body of Sun Ra recordings is impossible. After all, one can only see so much of the sun by looking at it directly at high noon. You’ll go blind before you know it and still be no closer to understanding sunlight.
And a word about Carl LeBlanc. Wow-holy goddamn-shit. That man is such a beautiful player. He currently holds down the banjo chair with the world famous Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Carl is undoubtedly the only working musician who has been a working member of both ends of the jazz spectrum, from traditional New Orleans jazz to avant garde stylings—and is supremely respected in both circles.
These albums are not the best of Sun Ra, just “some” (a little taste) of the best of Sun Ra, or to put it in the endless equations that Sun Ra favored, these albums are: hip music for squares = square music for hipsters. Place yourself anywhere on that equational spectrum, kick back in an easy chair or supine on the sofa, turn the stereo up to six or seven, and drift away into celestial pleasantries.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, December 31st, 2006 at 12:53 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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