A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Track #33 on Thommy Ford’s Playlist
Sun Ra’s birth name was Herman. Herman Blount. But he’s been known by all kinds of things, from Armen Blouhnt to Sonny Lee. Fact is, in 1952 he legally changed his name to Le Sonny’r Ra. 1952 was also the year Ra began telling a tale of his encounter with aliens on the planet Saturn. It supposedly took place back in the late 30’s while he was attending college in Alabama. His spirit left his body, he said, and was whisked away to Saturn where little men with antennas on their heads told him to return to earth and use music to spread their message of peace and love.
These tales of mystical space travel have been Ra’s blessing and curse ever since. They helped define his unique “Space Jazz” style, gave him a rabid cult following, and helped justify all kinds of wild musical experimentation. Yet, they’ve also relegated him to the second tier of avant-garde jazz musicians. It’s hard for listeners to think about Sun Ra in the same way as John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman—the later two always seemed like serious intellectuals, while Ra gave off the air of a slightly mad outsider artist.
If you’re not into the sci-fi gimmick, though, don’t let it throw you. Not only is Sun Ra as important to avant-garde jazz as any of his peers, his contribution is more unique and covers more ground than most. I think “What’s That?” is a good, basic place for the uninitiated to start. It’s from Ra’s first recording in New York, after spending 1945-1961 on Chicago’s Southside, where his regular gigs at the Pershing were the stuff of legend. It’s not straight jazz by any means, but it’s still short of Ra’s true wild side. In just a few years he would record albums like Heliocentric Worlds or Magic City. Madcap albums wilder and noisier than anything else in music at the time, but probably considered unlistenable by most jazz fans. Instead, “What’s That?” showcases Ra’s uniquely rhythmic piano work, his penchant for big band influenced horn charts, and excellent soloing from his Arkestra.
To me, the most memorable solo might be by Bernard McKinney on the Euphonium. The Euphonium isn’t heard much in jazz, and in a solo capacity it’s rarely heard anywhere. This solo will make you wonder why. It’s got a mellow vox-like quality that McKinney twists into something angular, surprisingly melodic, and even slightly humorous—a perfect accompaniment to Ra’s tune.
Among the chaos of solos that follow you’ll hear a tenor saxophone played by John Gilmore, the Arkestra’s most beloved sideman. Gilmore was barely into his twenties when he joined Ra’s band in Chicago in 1953 and stayed until Ra stopped playing in 1992. Gilmore is easily one of the most unique and talented of the great Tenor saxophonists of the 50s and 60s. In his solo on”What’s That?” you can hear his ability to coax weird but still listenable phrases and noises from the instrument.
If you’re new to Sun Ra and his Arkestra, this is the perfect place to start. And if you’re a long time fan but have missed this one (Ra was nothing if not prolific, and even some his best music could easily be overlooked) then stop by and pick it up. Recommended for all jazz fans and all adventurous listeners.
Review by Matthew