“I am Sun Ra ambassador from the intergalactic regions of the council of outer space.” – Sun Ra
Herman Poole Blount was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914, albeit he believed that he was never really born. At one point in his metaphysically unending journey, that is hard to determine (but roughly translates to the early 1940s in layman’s terms), he was baptised in the hectic zeitgeist of the jazz scene and took up the legal moniker of Le Sony’r Ra, later shortened to Sun Ra in homage to the Egyptian God of the Sun. He believed that he was an angel from Saturn. As you might expect, he was known in the local papers as “an eccentric character”.
However, aside from the eccentricities and the almost mystical credo of iconoclasm that he sported; he was also defined by virtuoso talents that have inspired a generation of musicians from all sorts of genres. As a pianist and bandleader, Sun Ra was basically everything that comes under the term ‘renascence man’ and he was also a thousand other things.
Ultimately, although it is not easily discernible, it would seem that his goal was to embalm the hardships of the black American experience with some sort of celestial abstraction of humanities roots on the banks of the Nile. This philosophy might not have stood up to the tests of white-coated anthropologists, but Sun Ra didn’t really care for anything that wasn’t enshrined in the ether of mysticism.
This mythical factor makes him a particularly difficult subject for our ‘Six Definitive Songs’ feature, and a tricky man to dive into full stop. As the jazz pianist Lonnie Liston Smith once said: “Sun Ra was Sun Ra, the name alone was enough.” It is not a quote that makes a whole lot of sense, but then that it rightfully befitting in its own berserk way.
What else is there to say about the musical extra-terrestrial than to dive into the music that contains enough undoubted prodigious talent to eviscerate the misnomer of ‘Outsider Music’.
Sun Ra’s six definitive songs:
‘Door of the Cosmos’
One of the key reasons why Sun Ra has been cited by hip hop legends such as the late MF Doom as an influence is, in part, because of the almost sampled feel that his interwoven melodies create. By cobbling a range of melodies and fleeting, leading lines together, he creates a melee that many hip hop artists have sought thereafter.
In songs like ‘Door to the Cosmos’ there is a wall of mirrors feel that can cause a headspin, but if you hang around long enough you will see that there is also an undoubted vibrancy in the musical undertow.
When diving into his music, it is important to remember how well thought of Sun Ra was in the jazz scene. Sun Ra was able to transcribe the music of his jazz contemporaries in real time, and he could play sheet music without having seen it before as though it was just like reading a book aloud.
Paradoxically in simpler, more refrained pieces like ‘Enlightenment’, this talent comes to the fore. The melody might be less hectic, but it still resonates with all the same joie de vivre as his more manic works.
‘The Blue Set’
Sun Ra was also so prolific that there is no knowing just how many songs he crafted in his time, whether that be in the mausoleum of his mind or the ones which he bothered to transcribe on paper. Thus, reissues and rarities are further being released with an array of different distinctive styles.
With ‘The Blue Set’, his jazz is the sort of swing that Count Basie described as being like “cutting butter”. With the horn-led melody and the easy groove on ‘The Blue Set’, Sun Ra and his collective whisky you to a headdress-clad parade of peace and love, without the raucous drama of some of his more challenging compositions.
‘Space is the Place’
As previously mentioned, it was Sun Ra’s belief that he was from Saturn. Therefore, it would only be fitting to mention some of his more chaotic music channelled from the solar system. ‘Space is the Place’ is not for everybody that much is sure, but like it or loath it, there’s not much like it.
The song is part of an Afrofuturist movie of the same name, which depicted Sun Ra as a space-age prophet who crash lands his craft in Oakland, having been lost in the stratosphere for years. In short, this is not your average jazz.
In 1980 Sun Ra released the EP Aurora Borealis. The five-song release saw him turn to solo piano, and the result was an exhibition of skill and soul that provides a great place to start as it shows his essence at its most exposed.
This considered piece is thankfully more conventional to write about because aside from a few avant-garde flourishes here and there, the melody is largely a harmonious ride along the keys. It might not be Sun Ra at his quintessence, but it is a certified answer to the question of sincerity surrounding his work, as is often the case with surrealist beings from the demimonde.
‘I Am Strange’
One of the many strings to Sun Ra infinite bow was his poetry. In this piano back poetry piece, the celestial lord takes on hate in an avant-garde fashion. “I am stronger than hate,” he announces, “I am contemptuous of both those who hate and those who destroy. I am not a part of a world which hates and a world which destroys.”
This is a poetic mantra that Sun Ra tried to impart throughout his music. There was always a method to his madness. In the colourful kaleidoscope of his back catalogue, there was always a fuelling undercurrent that resided in his experiences in the south and deep-seated desire to make the world a better place, no matter how unconventionally he tried to achieve this.