The problem with many of the pioneers of avant-garde jazz was that they approached their music with such grave pretentiousness that no one could mistake it for anything but lofty art.
What made Ornette Coleman's first groundbreaking albums so striking was they sparkled with the sound of sheer talent thumbing its nose at tired convention. There was almost a Marx Brothers quality to Coleman's early music, where it was easy to imagine him and his colleagues laughing out loud as they watched heady New York intellectuals run for cover in hopes of making sense of the tonal surrealism.
But many of those who followed Coleman's lead quickly smothered any hint of humor in the music, choosing to tackle "the new thing" in a tightlipped and serious-minded fashion.
Anthony Braxton, Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Schepp and even late-period John Coltrane were all guilty of reworking free jazz into a weighty and long-faced affair. All the while, critics nodded in approval from the sidelines.
Sun Ra, on the other hand, broke barriers and bridged gaps in a far less heavy-handed fashion than his contemporaries. Sun Ra -- along with the devoted and multitalented musicians who made up the various incarnations of his Arkestra -- built a career out of patching together musical styles that drew on swing, bebop, African rhythms, blues, funk, space music and free jazz. It was delivered in a seamless sound that resembled no other. Most important, it was infused with humor and optimism, despite the sometimes foreboding messages of intergalactic hocus-pocus.
At best, Sun Ra -- the former Herman Lee "Sonny" Blount of Birmingham, Alabama -- was a cult figure. So far outside of the mainstream (he insisted he was born on the planet Saturn) that he never landed a big-time recording contract or complete acceptance from the more orthodox members of the jazz scene. Instead, he was labeled a freak, and the skilled musicians -- such as saxophonists John Gilmore and Pat Patrick -- who stayed with him for years and donned B-movie capes and headgear while onstage were accused of being under some sort of hex.
Therefore, most of Sun Ra's self-produced, basement-made albums -- which were usually released on his own Saturn label -- were mere rumors. At least until Pennsylvania-based Evidence Records saw fit to rescue a slew of them from the boneyard, remastering and rereleasing more than 20 of them in the past decade.
The work of Evidence co-owner and producer Jerry Gordon -- along with Phoenix-based technical wizard Roger Seibel -- set new standards in the reissue business. Indeed, Evidence/Sun Ra titles such as Supersonic Jazz, Jazz in Silhouette and We Travel the Spaceways were some of the freshest jazz albums to come out in the 1990s, never mind the music had been recorded more than three decades earlier. The discs documented Sun Ra's experimentations with modal, free and electronic jazz years before Coleman, Coltrane and Miles Davis were applauded for their similar efforts. Most important, the Evidence discs helped chart the Arkestra's own trajectory from big band and bebop to intergalactic weirdness.
Now Evidence has unleashed five more CD packages that further map Sun Ra's fascinating journey -- in this case, his pilgrimage from the mid-1960s to the 1970s, when the iconoclastic bandleader was truly in a musical stratosphere.
When Angels Speak of Love, originally recorded in 1963 and released three years later, finds Sun Ra fronting a sparse-sounding but tight nine-piece version of the Arkestra. Marshall Allen opens the disc with some eerie oboe playing on "Celestial Fantasy." The band next tears into the space-age bebop of "The Idea of It All," where Sun Ra contributes some incredible, hyped-up, Monk-ish keyboard work. Walter Miller is on hand to deliver some remarkable trumpet work throughout the album.
For more than a quarter of a century, the two LPs that make up the double-disc set The Great Lost Albums gathered dust because of a contract dispute between the temperamental Sun Ra and Impulse! recording executives. One of the execs, Ed Michel, supplies the liner notes, which go a long way in explaining how difficult Saturn's favorite son was to work with in those days and why, perhaps, his career with the major label never got off the ground. But thankfully, the music survived. The two albums, Cymbals and Crystal Spears, are from 1973 and capture the Arkestra in top form. Tenor saxman Gilmore steals the show on the first disc, particularly on the 16-and-a-half-minute "Thoughts Under a Dark Blue Light," where he trades jagged blows with Sun Ra's organ playing in a moody and terrifying workout.
Pathways to Unknown Worlds/Friendly Love are two more albums originally recorded for Impulse! in the mid-1970s. Unfortunately, these platters are the tamest of the five new rereleases, starting off strong but quickly veering into the realm of extraterrestrial elevator music.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The rarest of the new series is the obscure Lanquidity from 1978, an album that saw only a brief vinyl life thanks to the efforts of a small Philadelphia label, Philly Jazz. Sun Ra fronts a 15-piece electronic big band that delivers some hefty space-funk. Excellent musicianship, especially on the hard-driving "Where Pathways Meet."
But the most indispensable disc of the bunch is the oddly titled Greatest Hits set, which has no "hits," per se, but still makes for a great introduction to the ever-changing world of Sun Ra. Morsels from nearly every one of Sun Ra's Evidence albums find their way onto the collection. Cuts such as "Kingdom of Not," "Velvet" and "Rocket Number Nine Takes Off for the Planet Venus" are pure pleasure: rollicking sonic trips that are completely unhindered by grim artistic aspirations.
As John Corbett points out in the notes that accompany When Angels Speak of Love, Sun Ra had little use for the cranial-intensive music of Schepp, Coleman, Cecil Taylor and the other "freedom boys," as he called them. He dismissed such music as "manufactured avant-garde." Free jazz, he believed, had no place in a universe that had no real freedom, says Corbett. The rest of us -- mere earthlings -- will simply have to take his word for it.