Space for Sun Ra?

Herman Poole Blount didn’t have it easy. For African-Americans from Birmingham Alabama, that was almost inevitable, but he was ‘orphaned’ (or abandoned) by First Grade, living from that time with his Great Aunt, was imprisoned as a CO during World War II, being ostracised by his family as a consequence, and considered himself friendless. Believing with good reason the world to be a brutal violent place full of grasping spiteful men, he – the gentlest of souls – imagined at first – and then possibly convinced himself – he was from another planet, Saturn. He claimed to have met God personally – in New York, on 125th Street to be precise. For him, myths were facts, facts myths, and only one thing mattered: music. He sought refuge in it, learning to play piano by ear at eleven, and never looked back. His career blossomed and album and song titles suggested a supra-cosmological intelligence at work, although occasionally the music was at variance with that. But even the most grounded or earthbound of his compositions contain elements of his uniquely unorthodox method. As John Szwed notes: “Flatted fifths and augmented ninths had been used to enhance an ending or get to an interlude where people would look up and say ‘What’s happening now?’ But he used them all the way through.” He brought idiosyncratic sounds together as an arranger by encouraging each musician to play in a manner true to himself/herself – only they could make those sounds which revealed their true selves.

For many years I couldn’t even listen to Sun Ra. Occasionally I would notice a slightly warped copy of The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Vol.2 peeking out forlornly from the back of my record collection – seemingly rejected, misunderstood. When I felt like playing some jazz I unwaveringly passed it by. Reflecting upon this now, I can see what went wrong. The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra Vol.2 was not an ideal gateway to his music. Be as well giving a copy of Metal Machine Music to a youngster eager to check out what all the fuss was about with Lou Reed. It was the first and last Sun Ra album I would buy after watching a documentary on television entitled A Joyful Noise around 30 years ago (the film was was made in 1980). 

I had been captivated by the unearthly sounds I heard as well as those strikingly flamboyant Arkestra costumes. I read what I could about him (there was strangely, little to read in those pre-Internet days) and music critics seemed to disagree as to which were his best LPs. Indeed, Sun Ra rarely makes an appearance in Greatest Albums polls, presumably because he recorded well in excess of 100 studio albums, many of which were only ever briefly available. There is such an exotic mystique about the man that many listeners want immediately to get their hands on something definitive. What they will find is that there is such an incredible musical variety in his output, that it is easy to become frustrated or bewildered and abandon the search completely, for even amongst the titles which occasionally resurface in articles and books as recommended recordings, there is no single unmistakable classic to fix on. The truth is that one could listen to a dozen or so Ra albums without gaining any insight into the intimidatingly latitudinous range of his brush strokes. Like many others I had given up on him after one album. 

I always had the intention of revisiting his music at some point, but tracking down Sun Ra albums can be a bit of a challenge: a small number of people have climbed Everest; less have a full house of Sun Ra albums. And getting a handle on which to give ear to is equally perplexing. His music ranges from big band, swing, straight bop, cacophonous free jazz, bizarre moog experimentation, polyrhythmic chanting, Afro-futurism and moody solo piano works, to gently funky space blues by candlelight. There’s even some disco out there. But if five or six albums are chosen very carefully, one may gain some measure of his music. 

So in a way I’m going to cheat a little here by identifying more than a few, and in truth the selection of Discipline 27-II if not quite arbitrary, is certainly not definitive. It is simply one of several superior outings which could have made the cut. If you’re looking for a way in, you may wish to try Space Is The Place and it’s sprawlingly funky title track, a futuristic interplanetary African spiritual. For a very accessible mid to late period introduction, Lanquidity and Sleeping Beauty (the latter is available on Spotify, you may have to search harder for the former) are superb. Check out the mellifluous ‘Springtime Is Here’ (from SB) – two chords, restrained solos; it’s a peach. You could track down something like ‘Omniscience’ from Aurora Borealis (1980) or become enchanted by the lopsided prettiness of ‘Where There Is No Sun’ from the 1978 double set New Steps. His earlier recordings Supersonic Jazz or Jazz In Silhouette are comparatively more conventional and may be more palatable to some; others may prefer to psych into those strange dissonant flutes and queasy strings that characterise his bonkers free jazz from the mid-60s (check out The Magic City or the two Heliocentric volumes). 

Instead, I’ve plumped for Discipline 27-II,  recorded at the same session as 1972’s Space Is The Place, but long since unavailable. It might seem a less obvious choice than its sister, particularly as it does not even feature the best version of its title track – that honour goes to the ultra rare Live In Egypt ‘71 – but it’s an album which contains a sufficient blend of styles to make it a good starting point and it goes without saying that it contains some great music too.

‘Pan Afro’ typifies this approach, Ra’s improvisational piano knocking out all kinds of strange rhythms which are buried under a smooth funky sax riff from John Gilmore. There’s a beautiful trumpet solo too – not sure if it’s by Akh Tal Ebah or Kwame Hadi who both played on the session.’Discipline 8′ is at the other extreme – a barrage of horns attack one chord from different angles, the tension building until the whole thing unravels in a blaze of squawking sax and then disintegrates completely, the skittering listless drums knocked unconscious, like wounded soldiers on a battlefield. ‘Neptune’ is cut from the same cloth as ‘Space Is The Place’ – one of those elongated space chants (led by June Tyson: “Have you heard the latest news about Neptune Neptune Neptune…”) which somehow contrives to sound both utterly lackadaisical and yet super funky at the same time before everyone lets loose in a free orgiastic finale. Finally, the lengthy title track, despite criticism that it is over long – is one of The Arkestra’s most fully realised creations – this time it’s almost like an interstellar conversation (“For you I gave up everything I never had/For all I never had is the life I abandoned…you’re down here, all isolated from the rest of the planets/don’t you feel lonely?”) – the horns are brilliantly measured – the whole thing is joyful, tuneful and soulful in equal measure. Here the Arkestra sound like they have unlocked the secrets of the universe and in some ways they probably had.

In the original Perfect Collection the authors conceded that “every collection ought to have at least one album by a genius like Captain Beefheart.” Actually, I’d say you need six Beefheart albums but that’s besides the point. In order to get to grips with Sun Ra you probably need about the same.There’s space, a place out there in your record collection for the man they called Sun Ra. That most eccentric of introverts left this planet 23 years ago – his extraordinary life had come to its natural end, but The Arkestra, under the tutelage of Marshall Allan are still painting the cosmos with luminous colours in 2016. (JJ)





Can a troubled artist create great art? Not according to Van Morrison, who once claimed that ‘you’ve got to be happy’ to produce your best work. But Van himself sounded like a man in pain when he made the majestic ‘Astral Weeks’, and there is certainly a counter argument to his assertion. Consider for example, Sly’s fractured and frazzled ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’, Dylan’s post-marital post mortem ‘Blood On The Tracks’, the austere desolation of Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon‘ or the neurotic but bleakly transcendent ‘Sister Lovers’ by Big Star – astonishing albums created under great psychological duress. You may wish to add to that impressive little list ‘New York Tendaberry’, Laura Nyro’s stark but affecting masterpiece from 1969.

Reviews of the album are characterised typically by comparisons with Joni Mitchell and Carole King, alongside a complaint that the arrangements are discomfortingly sparse and the music frustratingly out of character, the least joyous of her career. There is some uncertainty about Laura Nyro’s emotional well being at the time of the recording. The lyrics at times allude to a dark crushing sorrow, an unbearable distress, and the music has an unmistakable solemnity in places, as if she had shut herself away from the world and it’s troubles. And yet, one senses, even in the more introspective compositions, a brooding at times rapturous intensity, where the most intimate secrets are involuntarily unleashed in impassioned bursts which sound as euphoric as they are harrowing.
A more accurate musical touchstone than ‘Blue‘ or ‘Tapestry‘ would be something like ‘Laughingstock‘ by Talk Talk or ‘Climate Of Hunter’ by Scott Walker, perhaps even those John Coltrane albums of which she was so fond. There is an improvisational approach to the performances, a rudderlessness or – if you prefer – a wilful disregard for conventional song structure, which makes New York Tendaberry a comparable listening experience. Nyro was unable to write music. Instead, she “[held] the music in [her] head and [wrote] the lyrics down.” Her memory bank must have been bursting at the seams as she settled down to record some of these complex jazz and gospel inspired pieces for her third and finest album in early 1969.

Nyro empties those lungs, working her tonsils hoarse with abundant expressiveness, showcasing that extraordinary vocal range. Whether her voice caresses and purrs or lets rip piercing shrieks and wails, she is by turns little girl lost, now the bruised bastard daughter of Billie Holiday, or on occasion a frenzied howling banshee – sometimes all of these within a few short moments. The songs themselves frequently traverse several changes of mood and tempo. One (‘Tom Cat Goodbye‘) resurrects itself at least three times just as it’s embers appear to die out – it leaves me feeling exhausted, my head ransacked after Nyro’s dizzying energy-sapping performance.

On the album’s opening track, the exquisitely judged ‘You Don’t Love Me When I Cry‘, Nyro’s affliction (whether drug induced or man induced) yields the most naked of confessionals [‘I want, I want to die/You don’t love me when I cry/Made me love to play/Made me promise I would stay then you stayed away/Mister I got drawn blinds blues all over me’] The production is superb, crisp and understated, and Laura’s supple delivery incredibly heartrending.
Carving out similar territory are the haunting ‘Gibsom Street’ [‘Don’t go to Gibsom cross the river/The devil is hungry, the devil is sweet/If you are soft then you will shiver/Gibsom, Gibsom street/I wish my baby were forbidden/I wish that my world be struck by sleet‘] and the beautifully understated title track which provides a fitting finale to an album replete with references the devil, Lucifer and forbidden fruit – perhaps the reason it is often misconstrued as a thinly veiled narrative documenting a personal narcotic meltdown.

Throughout, the arrangements are superb. While the more upbeat tracks, such as ‘Mercy On Broadway’ retain the buoyancy of some of her ‘First Songs’, the gunshot and gospel break is inspired – infinitely more subtle and imaginative than the more explicitly commercial production of the first two albums. Both ‘Sweet Lovin’ Baby’ and the album’s most celebrated track, ‘Save The Country’ while more readily identifiable as ‘classic Laura Nyro’ bristle with a passion and inventiveness missing from those earlier outings. It is here on ‘New York Tendaberry’, where she presents the fullest exposition of her remarkable artistry.

I first read about Laura Nyro in a Melody Maker series from around 1987 entitled ‘Pop! – The Glory Years’, which turned me on to Tom Rapp and Syd Barrett amongst others. The article on Laura Nyro spoke of a woman who had wrestled with demons, perhaps the devil himself, and one sensed she had come out second-best in the tussle. Implicit in this account – which focused primarily on New York Tendaberry – was Laura’s supposed battle with heroin addiction, subsequently disputed by many. When I finally found an old second-hand copy, it quickly wormed its way into my consciousness. Whatever the truth regarding Laura’s drug use, it was plainly clear that here was someone laying her soul bare for all to hear. I remember exactly where the vinyl crackled in those spaces between the deftly nuanced orchestral and brass arrangements. It is in those very gaps that the album utters it’s unique language and it feels odd to listen now to those silent passages on CD, neutralised by their digital subjugation. Laura herself saw it as her most natural, even visceral recording. “It is not an obvious one…not one that you really even listen to, because it really goes past your ears and it’s very sensory and it’s all feel…it goes inside, like at the back of your neck, or something. It’s abstract, it’s unobvious and yet I feel that it’s very true. I feel that it’s life, what life is to me anyway.” Laura’s own life would of course end tragically prematurely at the young age of 49. Her legacy however is secure – a series of superb albums (all wheat, no chaff), of which this is her greatest accomplishment. (JJ)


It begins with a jaw-dropping celebratory blast of sax that snowballs into a technicolour avalanche of horns and percussive instruments, filling out every inch of the sound until breaking point – a joyous burst of spiritual energy loud enough to raise the dead from their tombs. It then retreats into a restrained and breezy tonal blues (with more than a subtle nod to ‘A Love Supreme’) featuring tropical split reeds and bells which shuffle the rhythm along gently, while vocalist Leon Thomas first sings, then as if possessed by some supernatural force, yodels (!) his hymn of praise, until once again, the momentum catapults the song forward towards its brain-scrambling cacophonous heart, which is as dense and aggressive as anything on ‘Trane’s ‘Ascension’. And we’re not even half way in yet! Welcome to Pharaoh Sanders’ ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’. The awe-inspiring 32 minute masterpiece is brim full of pregnant passages suddenly bursting ecstatically into feverish and tumultuous tenor saturnalia.

Farrell Sanders, a protege of Sun Ra – who gave him his lordly title – made a series of blinding free jazz albums on the Impulse! label in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Along with Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Alice Coltrane and others, this expressiveness became known as the ‘New Thing’. ‘Karma’ with TCHAMP taking up 90% of the playing time, is surely Sanders’ most perfectly realised moment. We hear his progression from the ‘Nubian Space Jazz’ of ‘Tauhid’ gilding his fresh canvass with brazenly psychedelic colours and textures.
In 1969 the hippie dream was over and heading for the horror of Altamont. The kids were faced with an extended conflict in Vietnam, and in pondering these existential crises crept back into their bedrooms where the excesses of ‘prog rock’ began to ferment ominously. Of course, once upon a time jazz and rock were very comfortable bedfellows; rarely today is that fusion apparent. ‘Astral Weeks’, ‘Happy Sad’ ‘Trout Mask Replica’,’The Soft Machine’; all of these effortlessly incorporated their jazz influences into the rock idiom. This unhappy divorce was exacerbated by the growth and development of electronic music, which has been far more accommodating of jazz influences and this has resulted in a seismic shift in the amount of serious exposure afforded by rock fans to jazz, and even to the classic Impulse! records of the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of which would once have been embedded as staple entries in any serious rock and soul LP collection. From the perspective of the rock fan, with only a passing interest in jazz, here is a good place to start. Somewhere on The Stooges debut album is a bass line lifted from Sanders’ ‘Upper and Lower Egypt’ and that influence would be worn more openly on Side 2 of Fun House with its free jazz given a blistering punk makeover borrowing heavily from Ayler, Coltrane, Sanders and ‘The New Thing’. (JJ)