Space is the Place: an introduction to the music of jazz visionary Sun Ra

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Including Saturn, Magic City and Dance of the Cosmo Aliens

The visionary composer, pianist, bandleader and philosopher Sun Ra left this planet in 1993. The Arkestra is now led by the indomitable Marshall Allan, who turns 95 in May. Ahead of the Arkestra's return to Summerhall on Wed 24 Apr, we offer ten entry points to the vast catalogue of the Afro-Futurist pioneer.

Saturn

According to his birth certificate, Sonny Blount was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914. But we all know he really came from Saturn. This mid 1950s homage to Sun Ra's home planet teleports the big band swing of his mentor Fletcher Henderson to a space station ballroom, and remains an Arkestra standard.

Lady With The Golden Stockings

Released in 1966 but recorded in the late 1950s, Nubians of Plutonia is one of the finest early Sun Ra albums, bringing African and Far Eastern influences to a space age jazz sound characterised by electronic experimentation and reverb heavy percussion.

Dreaming

In the late 1950s Sun Ra recorded several pop singles with Chicago vocal groups, including the festive gem 'It's Christmas Time'. 'Dreaming', credited to the Cosmic Rays, is a gorgeous doo-wop smooch.

Rocket Number 9 Take Off For The Planet Venus

Sounding like theme tune to some lost Flash Gordon style serial, 'Rocket Number 9' captures the excitement of space travel via frantic chants and gloriously wonky piano. Its electronically enhanced 1973 remake is even wilder.

Magic City

The lengthy title track of this essential 1966 recording has it all: freaky space echo, golden arcs of clavioline, astonishing bowed bass from Ronnie Boykins, gorgeous flute from Marshall Allen, and an ecstatic full Arkestra wig out.

Strange Strings

In 1961, Sun Ra moved the Arkestra from Chicago to New York, becoming part of the burgeoning black radical arts movement and producing some of his most 'out' music. Strange Strings (1967) is a weirdo DIY classic, with the Arkestra playing an array of esoteric stringed instruments alongside home-made contraptions like the sheet metal 'Sun Columns'.

Astro Black

A powerful articulation of Sun Ra's philosophy, this 1972 masterpiece features squalling horns, solar flare electronics and thunderous timpani, thrusting June Tyson's imperious vocals into the stratosphere.

There Are Other Worlds (That They Have Not Told You Of)

Over a loping beat that sounds like a hip-hop record playing at half speed, disembodied voices float across the stereo field like inter-dimensional messengers. Meandering flutes and shimmering percussion take us further beyond, buoyed by a rubbery bass groove. A clear influence on maverick rap producer Madlib, this 1978 track is a total trip.

Dance of the Cosmo Aliens

Recorded live in Milan in 1978, this proto-techno mind-melter finds Ra's luminescent keyboard channelling the blues of 'Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child' over skittering drum machines.

I'll Wait For You

Featuring call and response vocals from June Tyson and Rhoda Blount, this amazing 1979 love song travels the spaceways from lush jazz-funk to a synth and percussion meteor storm, arriving back at the refrain via a stunning tenor saxophone solo from the late, great John Gilmore.

Sun Ra Arkestra, Summerhall, Edinburgh, Wed 24 Apr.

Sun Ra Arkestra

The big band of late improviser Sun Ra performs jazz, swing and avant-garde freestyle.

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