Recently, DailyExpertNews asked jazz musicians, writers, and scholars to share the favorites that would make a friend fall in love with Duke Ellington, Alice Coltrane, bebop, Ornette Coleman, and jazz singing.
Now we turn the spotlight on Sun Ra, the experimental pianist, organist and bandleader whose idiosyncratic blend of jazz depicted life on other planets. He was born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Ala. He wore ornate robes and Egyptian headgear, and composed progressive music designed to communicate with Saturn, a place he said he felt a connection to after leaving college. “My whole body had changed into something else,” Sun Ra once said. “I could see through myself.” He said that aliens spoke to him: “They taught me some things that I could speak when it seemed that the world would fall into complete chaos, when there was no hope for nothing, but not before. I would speak and the world would listen.” In turn, Sun Ra’s music focused on space travel as a form of black liberation. He believed that black people would never find freedom on earth, and that true emancipation lay in the cosmos. Over the course of his career, Sun Ra recorded over 200 albums with his band – called the Arkestra – before passing away in 1993 at the age of 79.
Sun Ra’s music can be challenging – both artistically and due to the intimidating size of his discography. So while this isn’t a comprehensive list (what could be?), the songs chosen here by a range of musicians, writers and critics represent a cross-section of swing, fusion and free jazz. Have fun listening to the snippets or full playlist at the bottom of the article, and be sure to leave your own Sun Ra favorites in the comments.
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Nicole Mitchell, creative flautist
“El Is a Sound of Joy” has a symphonic blue, melodic, laid-back vibe that expresses the core of Sun Ra’s soul – his incredible love for black people. His piano solo gracefully beats through the changes life throws at us at a gentle pace that resists the stressful segregation and poverty the black community faced in Chicago in 1956 when this song was recorded. Just as Ra’s founding of the Saturn record label was a model for self-determination, “El Is a Sound of Joy” – a central track on this first Saturn album, “Super-Sonic Jazz” – is a mission statement that expresses our boldness to be beautiful. . “El,” meaning “might, power, and strength” in Hebrew, and a distinction of wisdom for the Moors, connects philosophical wisdom with sound meant to liberate. Effortlessly climbing through whole notes, to the background of baritone blues shrieks, we soar in ethereal pleasantries. It is the sound that is offered for our savings.