Space Is The Place: An Introduction To Sun Ra And The Arkestra

The first thing to know about Sun Ra is you've never known anything like him before.
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The first thing to know about Sun Ra is you've never known anything like him before.
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"I'm doing a different kind of mathematics" Sun Ra

The most influential yet under appreciated musician of the jazz era, if not all time, Sun Ra and his Arkestra's discography is one of the most extensive ever created: from their initial phase in Chicago, influenced by Ellington and Basie's big band swing; a more experimental period in New York (the band resettled in the city after becoming stranded after a gig) where they continued to pioneer the avant-garde scene through the '60s, leading jazz on a spiritual and cultural journey through the cosmos; and then their final phase resettling in Philly throughout the '70s and '80s. Through his own El Saturn imprint and a select few labels, Sun Ra released hundreds of LPs, even trading in white label pressings with venue managers and musicians on top of countless recorded rehearsals and live shows, leaving a body of work almost incalculable today.

The concepts explored by Sun Ra and the Arkestra shaped the thinking of many influential artists right up to present day. At the time, albums like Space is the Place (1973) and Sun Ra Visits Earth (1963) were light years ahead of a world that was just becoming accustomed to aeroplanes and TV. His quiet charisma was felt by everybody from John Coltrane to Pharaoh Sanders (who got his Egyptian nickname from Ra himself).

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Would George Clinton have made the Mothership Connection if Sun Ra hadn't declared 'Space is the Place'? Would Egyptian Lover have recorded On The Nile without Ra's mystic obsession with the ancient culture? Dressing in colourful robes and wearing ancient symbols might be associated with Afrika Bambaataa, but where do you think the Godfather of Hip Hop's street smart brand of afrofuturism came from?

Afrofuturism: Mixing contemporary black culture with the ancient world and looking at it through a cosmic kaleidoscope. Sun Ra created it. All roads lead to Saturn.

His avant-garde leanings have often lead to much of Sun Ra's work being unfairly labelled as inaccessible. Palmed off as 'just noise'. In fact, even the most spontaneous sounding recordings were meticulously composed, and not all of the Arkestra's work is so experimental as to put off the casual listener. The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961), for example, was the group's first album recorded in New York and contains some of their most accessible music.

Since Sun Ra's passing in 1993 the Arkestra have continued to spread his message, lead by the Godfather of avant-garde saxophone and long time band member Marshall Allen, himself a sprightly 91 years old. An Arkestra performance, all these years later, is still an entirely unique experience: the costumes, the energy, the music, all summon up the spirit of Sun Ra in full Technicolour. An exercise in call and response with the outer planes of the universe.

Veteran Arkestra trumpeter Knoel Scott's movements through the performances are spellbinding, out of his seat and dancing around the stage, arms and legs possessed by an astral force. Together with the power of the music, it's unlike anything you've witnessed before.

For a starting point, In Orbit of Ra is a recent compilation presented by Marshall Allen, released on Strut. It is the first internationally released collection all mastered from original tapes, including an interview with Allen and featuring rare, previously unpublished photos by Val Wilmer. Gilles Peterson also presented his own collection last year, another essential.