Arguably one of the most influential guitarists of his generation, Pete Townshend brought a visceral technique to the electric guitar when he and The Who burst on to the scene in the mid-sixties.
That same cutting edge wasn’t reserved for his on-stage playing nor just his on-stage instrument smashing, but in interviews too. The guitarist has often been quoted tearing down his contemporaries and has never really found too much admiration for those whom he, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon came up with—but there was seemingly at least one exception.
Though you may not call Sun R, the cosmically inspired jazz musician and composer, one of The Who’s most adjacent counterpoints, the album The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra arrived around the same time that The Who exploded on to the music scene. The 1965 album is one album that Townshend thinks everybody needs to hear before they die.
A mercurial LP, Sun Ra does some of his finest work on this compilation record which accurately documents the free-form jazz that emanated from the band. The back cover describes it as an “album of compositions and arrangements by Sun Ra played by Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra.” At 35 minutes long, it is a vibrant and quick injection of what made Sun Ra so desirable.
Marshall Allen, performing Piccolo on the album describes what it was like working with such a character, “Sun Ra would go to the studio and he would play something, the bass would come in, and if he didn’t like it he’d stop it; and he’d give the drummer a particular rhythm, tell the bass he wanted not a ‘boom boom boom,’ but something else, and then he’d begin to try out the horns, we’re all standing there wondering what’s next.”
Adding: “I just picked up the piccolo and worked with what was going on, what mood they set, or what feeling they had. A lot of things we’d be rehearsing and we did the wrong things and Sun Ra stopped the arrangement and changed it. Or he would change the person who was playing the particular solo, so that changes the arrangement. So the one that was soloing would get another part given to him personally. ‘Cos he knew people. He could understand what you could do better so he would fit that with what he would tell you.”
It was a type of creation that perhaps appealed to Townshend whose own experimental thinking saw him and The Who provide some expansive rock moments especially their rock operas. Speaking with NME, Townshend recalled his baptism of fire when discovering Sun Ra. “I got really into that sort of way-out avant-garde jazz, but you couldn’t find his record anywhere,” he said.
“So, one day I was in a jazz shop in Chicago – which I think is where Sun Ra came from – and I said, ‘have you got any Sun Ra?’ The guy says, ‘Yeah, all his stuff.’ I said, ‘Give me everything.’ ‘Everything?’ ‘Yeah.’ He comes back with 250 albums. Most of which I’ve still got in that room over there, still in the shrink-wrap.”
With the rare jewel of a Pete Townshend compliment in our hands, it must mean that Saun Ra is worth his weight in gold and if you’ve ever been curious, now is the time to jump on in and lose yourself in some far out jazz.