Arts

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Sun Ra

Lately The New York Times has asked jazz musicians, writers and scholars to share the favorites that would make a friend fall in love with Duke Ellington, Alice Coltrane, bebop, Ornette Coleman and jazz vocals.

Now we’re putting the spotlight on Sun Ra, the experimental pianist, organist and bandleader whose idiosyncratic blend of jazz imagined life on other planets. Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Ala., he wore ornate robes and Egyptian headgear, and composed progressive music meant to commune with Saturn, a place he said he felt a connection with after an out-of-body experience in college. “My whole body was changed into something else,” Sun Ra once said. “I could see through myself.” He said aliens spoke to him: “They would teach me some things that when it looked like the world was going into complete chaos, when there was no hope for nothing, then I could speak, but not until then. I would speak, and the world would listen.” In turn, Sun Ra’s music centered on space travel as a form of Black liberation. He believed Black people would never find freedom on Earth, and that real emancipation resided in the cosmos. Over the course of his career, Sun Ra recorded more than 200 albums with his band — called the Arkestra — before his death in 1993 at 79.

Sun Ra’s music can be challenging — both artistically and through the intimidating size of his discography. So while this isn’t a comprehensive list (what could be?), the songs chosen here by a range of musicians, writers and critics represent a cross-section of swing, fusion and free jazz. Enjoy listening to the excerpts or the full playlist at the bottom of the article, and be sure to leave your own Sun Ra favorites in the comments.

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Nicole Mitchell, creative flutist

“El Is a Sound of Joy” has a symphonically blue, melodious, laid-back vibe that expresses the core of Sun Ra’s soul — his incredible love for Black folks. His piano solo knocks with grace through the changes that life puts us through in a mellow tempo that resists the stressful segregation and poverty that the Black community faced in Chicago in 1956, when this song was recorded. Just as Ra’s founding of the Saturn record label was a model for self-determination, “El Is a Sound of Joy” — a central track on this first Saturn album, “Super-Sonic Jazz” — is a mission statement that sings of our audacity to be beautiful. “El,” meaning “might, strength and power” in Hebrew, and a distinction of wisdom for the Moors, ties philosophical wisdom with sound intended to liberate. Climbing effortlessly through whole tones, on the backdrop of baritone blues shouts, we levitate into ethereal pleasantries. It’s the sound offered for our saving.

“El Is a Sound of Joy — a.k.a. El Is the Sound of Joy”

Sun Ra and His Arkestra (Enterplanetary Koncepts)

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Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, musician

Most of this song is a chant: “You made a mistake. You did something wrong. Now make another mistake and do something right.” This is a mantra I live by, and also a destination I arrived at even before I knew this song. I have made my art, and also made a career, and also made a living by developing a musical style that seems like it is a mistake. What Sun Ra is saying is that we shouldn’t think of mistakes in the way that they have traditionally been thought of, that we shouldn’t place a negative value on them but rather a positive one. Prince used to say something similar to Wendy Melvoin: When you make a mistake, repeat it twice so that it looks purposeful. Two lefts (or maybe three) make a right. I believe in this message and this method so much that this song has become one of my rare meditation soundtracks that’s not a binaural beat.

“Make Another Mistake”

Sun Ra and His Arkestra (Enterplanetary Koncepts)

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John Szwed, Sun Ra biographer

Known mostly for what he called sounds of the future, Sun Ra was also devoted to the music of his youth, and sometimes mixed late 1920s swing into his wildest music. No surprise, then, that when in 1988 the producer Hal Willner asked him to be part of the album “Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films,” he agreed to do it. Willner suggested a song from the 1941 film “Dumbo” during which the little misfit elephant gets drunk. Once Sun Ra watched the film, and saw Dumbo hallucinating elephants leaping into space and traveling over pyramids and past some Egypto-images, he declared that he understood the plight of the misunderstood, rewrote the arrangement he was given, and recorded a strikingly straight performance of “Pink Elephants on Parade” with the whole band singing. It was no joke: a year later he would record his own full-length Disney tribute album, “Second Star to the Right.”

“Pink Elephants on Parade”

Sun Ra and His Arkestra (A&M)

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Dawn Richard, musician

“Space Loneliness No. 2” creates a frequency and vibration that sets me afire. The uncomfortable spaces and eerie chord pairings feel like actual bridges to space. It encompasses this black hole of sound while also giving you a vivid picture of isolation. (Before this, the song “The Cosmo-Fire,” with its brightly colored cadence and percussion, gave me that same feeling.) “Space Loneliness No. 2” is a fitting sonic description of the seclusion one feels during a global pandemic and political turmoil. It explains a time we all felt isolated, and this song speaks not only to my personal emotional journey, but to the brilliance and genius of Sun Ra, and his ability to constantly reflect the time while being light years ahead of it.

“Space Loneliness No. 2”

Sun Ra and His Arkestra (Strut)

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David Renard, Times senior editor

If I want to clear out the mind’s cobwebs, I’m putting on a long piece like “Atlantis” and letting it blow my hair back. But what if the vibe is more “zipping with the top down through an Afrofuturist spy movie”? Sun Ra has you covered there, too. “The Perfect Man” was released in 1974, on a single on Sun Ra’s own El Saturn label, paired with the jaunty, bluesy chant “I’m Gonna Unmask the Batman.” (No one can accuse the Arkestra of lacking a sense of humor.) On this B side, a simple cymbal-and-snare pattern sets things up for Sun Ra’s space-age explorations on a Moog synthesizer, accompanied by more earthbound, tuneful horns — funky minimalism at its finest.

“The Perfect Man”

Sun Ra Arkestra (Strut)

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Rob Mazurek, musician

Sun Ra’s “Disco 3000” was culled from live recordings from Milan in 1978. The title track moves from Ra’s infectious bass lines, to free excursion, to ingenious use of rhythm machine and arpeggiator, creating this outer/inner sound unlike anything else. One gets the impression that Sun Ra is playing the past, present and future in one fell swoop, his mighty organ being played as if it’s some kind of time-travel device. It’s a seeming precursor to future studio cutup technique (although played live!), with stellar solos by the great John Gilmore and Michael Ray, and the colorful, propulsive drumming of Luqman Ali. A quartet performance that is orchestrated perfectly by Ra. We are even treated to a short shouted chorus of Sun Ra’s most famous hymn, “Space Is the Place.” If you are looking for a deep cut to take you somewhere else, frequencies to expand the mind, and at the same time absolutely relevant to now, then this is it.

“Disco 3000”

Sun Ra and His Arkestra (Enterplanetary Koncepts)

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Amirtha Kidambi, musician

“Saturnian Queen of the Sun Ra Arkestra” (2019) is the only collection of June Tyson recordings, an odd thing considering her ubiquity in the Sun Ra universe. The inimitable Tyson was the voice of the Arkestra from 1967 until her untimely death in 1992. Now, 30 years later, Tyson is still one of the underrated vocalists of the idiom. I’ve personally been waiting for the June Tyson Renaissance for a while now, having soaked up her influence in my own singing, and in my work with Darius Jones in Angels & Demons, centered on the cosmological writings of Sun Ra. Ra wrote hundreds of poems, a practice serious enough for him to send them to publishers apart from their use as lyrics in his music. I spent much of the early pandemic period studying Tyson’s incisive delivery and analyzing these poems, whose prescient themes resonate even more potently today. “Satellites Are Spinning” is a bizarre, insistent little ditty built on an unstable augmented chord, with dissonant horn swells and an accompaniment that feels disjointed from Tyson’s vocal melody. In this chromatic field, Tyson pierces through with an angular yet characteristically bluesy line, “We sing this song to abolish sorrow.” I think the word “abolish” is key here. Abolition, for a better tomorrow, if only the Earth would awaken.

“Satellites Are Spinning”

June Tyson (with the Sun Ra Arkestra) (Modern Harmonic)

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Marcus J. Moore, jazz writer

Sun Ra’s “Shadow World,” from a 1970 concert at Fondation Maeght in the south of France, sounds like a subway car barreling underground, its cascading drums and squealing horns coalescing in turbulent harmony. It’s free jazz and psych-rock, cacophonous and dulcet. Midway through the song, Sun Ra cuts through the din with an organ solo beamed in from Saturn, giving it an otherworldly feel. Equally aggressive and brave, it’s the type of song needed this time of year in a cold-weather city, when the sun fades too soon and nothing shields you from the unforgiving chill. But I think that’s why I love the song: Like much of Sun Ra’s music, it’s uninhibited, and the crescendo reminds me of another personal favorite — Common’s “Jimi Was a Rock Star” — as an orchestral gem conjuring ancestors in the most frenetic way imaginable. That it upholds creative vision while confounding listeners is a plus. Nothing impactful comes from playing it safe.

“Shadow World”

Sun Ra and His Arkestra (Cosmic Myth Records)

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Andy Beta, writer

As a punk/alternative kid, noise was what originally pulled me into Sun Ra’s orbit, his use of terrestrial instrumentation to conjure sounds both astral and alien. But as the late Detroit house and techno producer Mike Huckaby once told me: “Most of what he is playing is not noise,” noting instead the man’s uncanny ability to blend chaos and tenderness in his music. Nowhere is that balance better documented than on a run of albums Ra recorded in 1979 for his El Saturn label, capped with “Sleeping Beauty,” which leans slightly toward the latter element. Some 28 musicians in total are credited, but on “Springtime Again,” they move as a single unit. The Arkestra’s sound is airy, dreamy, drifting, voices like a sigh. Here, Ra is not so much concerned with the cosmos, but with that most wondrous earthly delight, the return of spring.

“Springtime Again”

Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Myth Science Solar Arkestra (Enterplanetary Koncepts)

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Jes Skolnik, writer, editor and musician

The B-side and title track of the album “Atlantis” isn’t exactly an easy piece, but it is one to which I return frequently. Recorded live at the Olatunji Center of African Culture in Harlem in 1967 — Ra and the Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji were good friends, bonded by musical inclinations and similar ideas around the importance of African and broader Black diasporic art — it was condensed down to just over 20 minutes from roughly 45. Ra’s keyboard improvisations here are aggressive and discordant, representing the titular ancient civilization being overwhelmed by the forces of the natural world; as the band finally enters the shattered landscape about 10 minutes in, one can see visions of the future built among the wreckage of the past.

“Atlantis”

Sun Ra and His Astro Infinity Arkestra (Enterplanetary Koncepts)

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KeiyaA, musician

If jazz is a language, then Sun Ra’s Arkestra was my introduction to the practice of speaking freely, intentionally objecting to traditional notions of form and communicating outside of them. Conscientious objection is something in which June Tyson is an expert, especially shown in my favorite tune of theirs, “Somebody Else’s World.” The opening organ line is the opening of a grand ceremony. June enters haunting and assured, a lesson in Southern Gothic. She sings a translucent “ah,” a melody, and then the lyrics:

“Somebody else’s idea of somebody else’s world is not my idea of things as they are. Somebody else’s idea of things to come need not be the only way to vision the future.”

June continues to bellow, with pulsating “ah”s, the band expanding and retracting. It’s so beautiful and consuming! She ends by humming the melody, giving us room to meditate on what’s been said. Hearing this for the first time felt like holding a ton of bricks; it’s heavy as hell, to be reminded and assured that we can (must?) shape the world to be what we believe it to be and not inherently what it is. I’d always known (and been intimidated by) Sun Ra’s work to reference life outside of this world, but June’s voice alongside his gave me a framework on what to do with this world. Long live Sun Ra and the Saturnian Queen — I am truly, truly thankful for them.

“Somebody Else’s World — a.k.a. Somebody Else’s Idea”

Sun Ra and His Astro Infinity Arkestra (Enterplanetary Koncepts)

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