Graded on a Curve:
Sun Ra,
The Futuristic Sounds
of Sun Ra

No musician better fits the descriptor “beyond category” than Herman Poole Blount, aka the late, great Sun Ra. Indeed, those simply assessing him as one stone mug in free jazz’s Mt. Rushmore have clearly not listened to much of the man’s stuff. The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra, originally released in 1962 on the Savoy label, is recognizably a jazz record, but it’s only tangentially freeform. And yet, it’s consistently exploratory as it blends edgy, advanced post-bop with aspects familiar to the Exotica genre. On September 16, Craft Recordings does the world a considerable solid, giving the record a fresh reissue on 180 gram vinyl, CD and digital.

Upon release, The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra, the pianist-composer-bandleader’s fourth LP and first to be cut outside of Chicago, didn’t exactly make a big splash, even with the ostensible muscle of a long-extant record label behind it; the prior two Sun Ra albums, 1959’s Jazz in Silhouette and ’57’s Super-Sonic Jazz, were self-released micro-editions on Sun Ra’s now legendary imprint El Saturn, and his debut, also from ’57, Jazz by Sun Ra (aka Sun Song, the title Delmark gave it for reissue) was put out by Transition, the label of Tom Wilson, who happens to be the producer of The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra.

If it can be properly said that Sun Ra ever made a big splash on the scene, it was probably through the two The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra volumes ESP-Disk issued in ’65, mainly because they aligned the artist and Arkestra with a “bohemian” audience in the years between Beat’s winddown and the Hippie explosion. But still; nearly five years elapsed before Sun Ra made the cover of Rolling Stone, so it’s probably more accurate to say the man and his band just indefatigably plugged away incrementally, until they were eventually firmly ensconced into the landscape of 20th century subterranean artmaking.

Folks who come to The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra having only heard a few of the Arkestra’s wilder dives into abstraction can be struck by the general lack of mayhem (“The Beginning” is this album’s main exception), and by extension, drawn conclusions often define the music here as embryonic. I disagree with these assessments while acknowledging that the set’s 11 “miniatures” (to borrow a description of the tunes from liner essayist Ben Young) present a distinct and much more accessible approach than what’s on later records like the two Solar Myth Approach volumes and Concert for the Comet Kohoutek.

It’s necessary to remember that cutting records in the era of Futuristic Sounds was for most musicians a way to simply (hopefully) make a little cash, but more importantly, it helped to provide exposure and to secure gigs, which generally paid better than recordings, at least for those not chalking up pop hits on a consistent basis. And so, Young’s observation that Futuristic Sounds was something of a calling card for Sun Ra and the Arkestra as they were struggling in New York City is well taken, but it’s also not a case of the man and the band tempering their playing and streamlining Ra’s concepts.

Instead, Futuristic Sounds is simply where Sun Ra and his group, in this case, nine members strong, existed evolutionary speaking when they crossed paths with Wilson again (he was working for Savoy) and the opportunity arose to hit the studio. A handful of long-serving Arkestra linchpins are in the band, including tenor saxophonist-bass clarinetist John Gilmore, bass saxophonist Pat Patrick, bassist Ronnie Boykins, and multi-reed man and flautist Marshall Allen, who at 98 years of age, directs the Sun Ra Arkestra to this day.

There are also a few participants unique to the album, like trombonist-euphonium player Bernard McKinney, later known as Kiane Zawadi, noted for playing on Donald Byrd’s Byrd Jazz (for Wilson’s Transition label) and Freddie Hubbard’s Ready For Freddie, and drummer Willie Jones, who made sessions and gigs with Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Elmo Hope and Randy Weston. Leah Ananda was roped in to play the conga, a big source of Futuristic Sounds’ Exotica flavor, along with Allen’s flute.

Also on the record for one track, “China Gate” (the sole piece not composed by Sun Ra, instead a Victor Young composition and the title song to the 1958 Sam Fuller film, where it was sung by lead actor Nat “King” Cole), is vocalist Ricky Murray, who cut a single with Ra and the Cosmic Rays back in Chicago, and whose contribution here will likely stand out pretty starkly to modern ears, in a manner akin to Kenny Hagood crooning “Darn That Dream” on Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool.

Murray’s tones might take a little getting used to, but his presence effectively drives home that Sun Ra’s artistry, on The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra and at any given point in his long career, is a blend of tradition, modernity, commercialism (often expressed through theatricality as sheer showmanship), sincere unconventionalities, and yes, legit avant-gardist elements. In short, Sun Ra is responsible for one of the great sustained gifts in the history of recorded music.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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