November 23, 2014

Sun Ra and His Arkestra, "In the Orbit of Ra"

I've made a lot of "best of" compilations of Sun Ra's music for friends over the years. This began with cassettes when I was in college, then CD-Rs and USB sticks. None of the CD-Rs survived, but I still have a few of the cassettes (I always spun up a copy for myself) with their photocopied artwork and handwritten song lists. To build these compilations, I mostly mined the '50s Chicago output, which everybody digs. From there, what else I included depended on the recipient. Some people got more of the '60s experimentation, others got the heavier, headier stuff from the '70s and '80s, like the cuts from the releases on the Horo label, or the well-known live medleys. Still, I was never totally satisfied with my mixtapes. I felt like it was impossible to create a comprehensive and definitive Sun Ra "best of" and still have it actually flow and work as something you can consume in one sitting. After so many attempts, I grew to regard the career-spanning Sun Ra best-of as the uncrackable nut. Well, I'm happier than ever to be proven wrong, and by the one guy in the omniverse most qualified to curate the perfect Sun Ra mixtape: Marshall Allen. Ra's longtime saxophonist and keeper of the flame has assembled this two-disc compilation. Every song has been remastered and sounds fresh. Not only is it engaging and full of life and 100 percent fun to listen to, but it really does have everything. There are chants, vamps, and freakouts. Vocal tunes, scorching free-jazz, big band swing, lonely blues, solo piano passages, weirdo synths, and DRUMS DRUMS DRUMS. Some primo June Tyson, John Gilmore, Ronnie Boykins, and Pat Patrick. All the "hits" are here, right alongside things I've never heard before (things you probably haven't heard either). The challenging stuff is dosed appropriately and edited to keep things moving nicely. It's a fantastic listen, and a big breath of fresh air after a long cycle of horrid-sounding "lost tape" releases and other blatant cashouts. This is the real deal, a clear map of unknown worlds. All up for Jupiter!