I'm always interested to see how MSM handles some of the more outre jazz musicians, and, quite frankly, pleased to see that they handle them at all. Yesterday's NYT had a good piece on Sun Ra, by Holland Cotter, who begins:
Cotter's piece is, in part, a review of the Sun Ra exhibit at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, a show I'd like to see but probably won't, as I'm not likely to be there before August 2, when it closes.
Short history: Herman Poole Blount was born in 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama, and was known as Sonny. In 1952, he changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra, and once he started performing, he was known as Sun Ra (obviously a bit of a redundancy, as Ra is the sun god). He was a pianist and big band leader who played and lived until 1993. He also concocted a rather complicated back story involving having come to Earth from the Planet Saturn, and being hear to save the Earth through spirituality and music. His public persona became stranger and stranger over the years, as he began to appear wearing faux Egyptian headgear, antenna and the like. His band's bore names such as the "Solar Arkestra," "Astro Infinity Arkestra," "Myth Science Arkestra," "Astro-Galactic Infinity Arkestra," etc., etc.
I have a very specific recollection in the late 1960's that Downbeat Magazine devoted much of an issue to celebrating Louis Armstrong's birthday, and they asked a broad spectrum of musicians to convey their own birthday greatings to old Satchelmouth. Sun Ra's greeting: "Happy Birthday, Intergalactic." Well, ok.
So, after reading Cotter's warm paen to the Intergalactic one, I wandered over to the avante garde big band music wing of the CalBizLIt music library and pulled out the compilation CD, "Sun Ra And His Arkestra, Greatest Hits." I know irony doesn't really show on the internet, but I believe that is supposed to be irony. Sun Ra did not have many hits. Anyway, after some years, I decided it was time to give him another listen.
First, you should know that this CD is probably about as accessible as Sun Ra's music gets. It contains relatively conventional versions of Monk's "'Round Midnight" and the Gershwins' "I Loves You Porgy." And the tunes with which you may be less familiar, oh, say, "Rocket Number Nine Take Off For the Planet Venus," or "The Order of the Pharaonic Jesters" include, really, a minimum of what my wife sometimes refers to as "pig-killing music."
But you know, there just isn't much there to keep my attention. The big band arrangements are muddy and sort of willfully ragged. I have no quarrel with modern arrangements which abandon conventional melody and harmony -- compare John Coltrane's spell-binding Ascension. But what makes big band play compelling, whether traditional or avante garde, is when the pieces of composition and improvisation are like sonic panels sliding in and out the piece. Between the interactions and the tightness, the listener who has acclimated to the music can't imagine the composition, or the improvisation, coming together any other way.
Neither Sun Ra's approach to traditional jazz nor his experimental music come close to meeting this standard of inevitability. Instead, there's a sloppiness and a randomness that seems more than anything else, to say "we're doing this because we can."
I was going to put up some Youtube video as I typically do, and there's lots to choose from. But I really do watch them all the way through before I post them, and I couldn't find a single one that I could tolerate to the end. So sorry, Holland, but at this point, we bid adieu to Mr. Ra and his various Arkestras.