TWO FROM SUN RA: THE SINGLES (Evidence 22164-2) & REFLECTIONS IN BLUE (Black Saint 120101-2)

Sun Ra’s music was always filled with dance and romance, hefty shots of blues, doses of call-and-response celebration, and a load of black swing rhythm inherited from the big band era. These two CD releases prove the hypothesis.

The Singles is a double CD documenting the evolution of Sun Ra’s music. The man with the double-entendre name (‘Ra’ is the ancient Egyptian Sun-god) released over forty 45 rpm recordings between 1954 and 1982. They ranged from ‘Sunny’ backing four-part harmony groups, distinctive rhythm ‘n’ blues, to Ra’s patented brand of ‘travel-the space ways’ music. Beginning in 1958, Ra plays a variety of electronic key-boards as well as piano.

Daddy’s Gonna Tell You No Lie is a quintessential example of ‘doo-wop’ complete with googly-eyed teen-age lyrics (“When I saw you at the record shop…”), vocal bass-line and high-note specialties, as well as off-beat accents that sound out nonsense syllabics. What sets this tune apart from well-known doo-wop tunes is the rhythmic complexity. The beat is often rushed and this gives the heady felling that the rhythm is accelerating. This in turn leads to a feeling of being off-kilter. Perhaps the tune is a prelude to Sun Ra’s spinning out of Earth orbit. Square-dancing wouldn’t cut it here for there are no straight lines to follow.

Medicine for a Nightmare (1956) features trombonist Julian Priester and tenor saxophonist John Gilmore in a boppish-fast number. Sun Ra plays chord-changes throughout but they are fed to the band in a choppy manner, lending the music a wildly off-balance cadence. With Rough House Blues one gets the traditional with a piano-drums variation on the ancient Handy composition, St. Louis Blues; with Blues on Planet Mars a Solar Sound Instrument (Hohner Clavinet) sings out a stoned-hippy dance tune.

Overall, The Singles is a totally entertaining proposition. It documents the development of an artist well-versed in the jazz tradition but who is also adept at creating pop-style music far superior to the hits of the time. Picturing Sun Ra lip-syncing on American Band Stand stretches the limits of the imagination, but it probably would have been the best thing to ever happen to pop music.

Unless one is well-inculcated in the Ra-culture, a better introduction might be Reflections In Blue (1986). Whereas The Singles are essentially small group recordings with an assortment of predominantly rhythm instruments, Reflections In Blue was recorded by a complement of 14 musicians (including two drummers); almost every musician doubles  another instrument.

The CD opens with a swinging State Street Chicago (also contained in a less-refined form on The Singles). As in some of the tunes mentioned above, the beat is pushed. In this case, it is Ra on synthesizer who rushes the beat with odd figurines on his right hand while playing organ rhythms on his left. In contrast to Ra’s quirky feel, the drummers shuffle a steady rhythm and the band riffs in back of the soloists. The aural centers of the brain command the feet to a full-fledged tap-dance à la Bojangles.

There are three standards, two by Jerome Kern, and one by Irving Berlin. Yesterdays is played up-tempo, and Say It Isn’t So has a satiric, nonchalant edge to it. I Dream Too Much is a straight romantic ballad, with Sun Ra singing the lyrics with all the empathy of a youngster in the midst of a mirage of his first love.

And if you want to hear some fine piano, listen to the final cut, Reflections In Blue. At one time, Sun Ra runs the rhythm like an Earl Hines with that extraordinary left-hand bounce, then emulates Basie’s blues left hand and spare right hand, and occasionally shifts into stride. It seems that Ra could, and did, play everything in the American repertoire of music. And then some.

Originally published in 5/4 Magazine, Seattle, 1997

Comments are closed.