Sun Ra – Singles – The Definitive 45s Collection album review

Sifting the stardust from the cosmic debris of the jazzer’s prolific oeuvre

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Herman Blount realised there were an awful lot of jazz pianists in early 50s Chicago who’d never been teleported to Saturn. Growing up in Alabama, prodigious Herman voraciously self-educated at the city’s Black Masonic Lodge and, combining arcane esoterica, ‘secret’ history and mysticism (as musicians will) renounced his past, adopted the name Sun Ra and set about taking Chicago by storm. And somewhere along the way had apparently popped up to Saturn for a little light reprogramming. Which was convenient.

Most of the recordings on this three-disc set were released as limited-run singles – some so rare no copies survive to confirm their existence – on Ra’s own El Saturn label between ’57 and ’91. Debut platter I Am An Instrument/I Am Strange (recorded for Norton in ’52) combines poetry and sound collage to innovative effect. Would that everything here were so unorthodox.

Despite the MC5 famously adopting him as an influence, Sun Ra no more rocked than he enjoyed interplanetary travel. Singles’ first two discs of Dizzy-ed-up, post-Ellington bop, blues and doowop are largely unremarkable. Saturn’s a great tune, but The Blue Set sounds uncomfortably close to the theme tune to Bottom. Drab mambos abound and John Gilmore’s routinely sharp tenor sax doesn’t even work as a counterpoint to Little Mack’s inherent vocal flatness.

Disc three finally delivers avant-garde otherworldliness. Unexpected phrasing, atonal ensemble work, unnerving percussion, spoken word spontaneity. Post-Beat rap-jaculations echo The Last Poets as they coalesce around Journey To Saturn’s Velvets maelstrom.

Despite claims to synth pioneer status, the first appearance of Moog here comes in ’73. The Perfect Man is shockingly poor, considering where the UK prog maestros and Walter Carlos had already taken its technological advantages. By ’75 Ra settled upon Monk- and Mingus-informed, groove-based improvisation, though live could swing from straight stride to concrète aggression in a heartbeat. Try before you buy, for while Sun Ra and his various Arkestras were certainly progressive, at times they were as far from prog as the Sun is from Saturn.