blast first / mute records | lp/cd bffp42 | 1989
Surely the best thing about running a record label must be the opportunity to release music that you love. Such is the case with Blast First head Paul Smith‘s release of three Sun Ra records via his label in the late Eighties and Nineties. That trio of releases – the CD/VHS set Cosmic Visions (which includes the legendary Space Is The Place film), a live album of Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra recorded in London and the compilation Out There A Minute – were all made possible, first and foremost, by Smith being a fan of Sun Ra’s body of work. The other reason was a sense of exasperation and disbelief that there were people out there who bought all the prior Blast First releases. His aversion to being seen as some sort of Factory-style ‘cult’ label, or even being regarded as a record label at all, again led to a focus on bands and artists that Smith was personally interested in.
‘Hence the Sun Ra and Glenn Branca releases,’ explains Smith by email. ‘Both have a connection and influence on, say, the music of Sonic Youth, but both were maybe not so obvious to people at the time. Thurston [Moore, Sonic Youth guitarist] was, even then, a big collector of Ra, and I’d seen the Arkestra play years before in London. They made a real impact on me – and who would not want to meet an Angel, and one from Saturn to boot? Anyway we had about twenty people send these two records back asking for a refund, which we happily gave them. Mission accomplished.’
Sun Ra’s legacy as an outsider jazzman, band-leader, synth pioneer and visitor from another planet is huge, as is his body of work across a multitude of labels. Collecting Ra records can be a daunting and extremely expensive task, which is why compilations like Out There A Minute are useful introductions to Sun Ra’s complex body of music. If you believe the official biography, Sun Ra was born Herman Poole ‘Sonny’ Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in May 1914 and by his early teens was an impressive pianist, able to transcribe full works by ear after witnessing performances of the many jazz legends that performed in Birmingham on the US jazz touring circuit. By the mid-Thirties, Blount was leading his own band, insisting on rigorous practice and creating a disciplined, Calvinistic, work ethic that allowed his band to adapt to a number of jazz styles with ease.
The ‘other’ biography is much more interesting, and likely of much greater influence on the music that was issued by Sun Ra. After a couple of years of limited success with his band, Blount claimed to have been surrounded by a white light, which he followed, and which magically transported him to Saturn where a form of Angel spoke to him of impending chaos on Earth, encouraging him to preach peace through music, and replacing his corporeal form with that of a Saturnine Angel. During the course of his onward career, Sun Ra – as he became known from 1952 having legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra – would focus on a form of Afrofuturism, his Arkestra would wear Egyptian costumes on stage and his music would take on an astral dimension.
Whilst liner notes are absent (something jazz fans are pretty intolerant of generally), we know that the tracks that form Out There A Minute were recorded in New York at the Arkestra’s base near 42nd Street, a communal living and performance space that the band were forced to adopt because of Manhattan’s sky-high rents. The band were residents in New York from 1961 through to 1968, during which time they adopted more of a free improv style, currying favour with the beat poets and fans of psychedelia, but also getting frustrated by hecklers and a more universal concern that Sun Ra and his band were a bit too ‘far out’ for the jazz fraternity.
Out There A Minute comprises thirteen tracks from the end of the Arkestra’s New York period, personally compiled by Sun Ra from an archive of rare recordings. The recordings range from straight-up big band bop like ‘Dark Clouds With Silver Linings’ or ‘Lights Of A Satellite’, which showed that Sun Ra was still prepared to tap into more traditional (and more popular) jazz forms, through to some of the more intensely alien pieces. The Sun Ra Moog sound is here not quite developed, though some of the tracks have some distinctive and inventive early synth musings; predominantly Sun Ra deploys piano or organ lines here, nestled among John Gilmour‘s tenor sax and Marshall Allen‘s alto. In the jazz genre, it perhaps doesn’t feel quite so adventurous as the idea itself today, but these pieces undoubtedly have an otherworldly quality when compared with other music being wrought at the time. Tracks veer from polite, romantic musings such as the genteel but noisy ‘When Angels Speak Of Love’ to the scratchy whine of ‘Cosmo Enticement’ or ‘Next Stop Mars’. The playful, wobbly echoes of ‘Song Of Tree And Forest’ sounds like something that wouldn’t have gone amiss on the soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey if Kubrick hadn’t decided to go all highbrow with his use of Ligeti. ‘Other Worlds’ is cloying, manic skronking, hammered pianos and wild percussion, truly out there playing with a playful, expansive reach.
Smith recalls meeting Ra and his band several times. ‘I even got to visit them in their commune in Philly, and once took him shopping on London’s Denmark Street where he picked up a “Heavy Metal” guitar pedal. Sunny had no idea about the musical genre, he just liked the name and started talking about the different physics on the home planet.’
‘I organised some dates, especially in the UK where he’d sort of lost his place with the jazz fraternity at that time,’ Smith recalls. ‘Sun Ra playing at The Mean Fiddler is what showed Vince Power that Camden Jazz Cafe could work! Sunny was a truly lovely soul. A fantastic and mischievous twinkle in his eyes all the time, and a lovely giggle. He was very anti-drug, and very strict with his band members. I remember introducing Thurston Moore to Sunny at the Bottom Line jazz club in New York – it was one of the few times I’ve seen him look freaked out at meeting someone.’
Sun Ra rejoined his Saturnine people in 1993, handing the baton to Marshall Allen, who leads the Arkestra to this day. Only a few of the original members survive, and Allen himself will turn ninety in a couple of years, but the unique band that Ra created continue to tour, the perfect living tribute to one of jazz music’s most celebrated but misunderstood geniuses.
On a personal level, there were two things that formed my still-developing interest and love of jazz. The first was a guy called Brian, a friend of the middle-aged couple that I lived with during my final year at university in Colchester in 1998. Brian was a big man, who I forever imagine now to look like Peter Brötzmann, and he absolutely loved jazz. Every summer he’d take himself off to european jazz festivals, and the few times he and I spoke, he enthused about the genre so much that it cemented in me a need to explore jazz much as I’d been drawn into punk two years earlier. Sadly Brian passed away that year and never managed to give me the recommendations he’d always intended to. The other influence was seeing this Sun Ra compilation listed in the Documentary Evidence pamphlet that ultimately inspired this site. At the time (1991), I had no idea who or what Ra was, and it wasn’t until I read a review of John F. Szwed’s book in The Wire around a year after Brian’s death that I began to appreciate his importance and also the sheer eclecticism of Smith’s label. It took me a few years to build up to delving into Ra’s back catalogue, but it didn’t disappoint when I finally did.
Thanks to Paul Smith.
A1. / 1. Love In Outer Space
A2. / 2. Somewhere In Space
A3. / 3. Dark Clouds With Silver Linings
A4. / 4. Jazz And Romantic Sounds
A5. / 5. When Angels Speak Of Love
A6. / 6. Cosmo Enticement
B1. / 7. Song Of Tree And Forest
B2. / 8. Other Worlds
B3. / 9. Journey Outward
B4. / 10. Lights Of A Satellite
B5. / 11. Starships And Solar Boats
B6. / 12. Out There A Minute
13. Next Stop Mars (CD bonus track)
First published 2012; edited 2014.
(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence