Wednesday, Dec 03 2003 | 13:30

Of all the jazz musicians, Sun Ra was probably the most controversial. He surrounded his adventurous music with costumes and mythology that both looked backwards toward ancient Egypt and forwards into science fiction. In addition, Ra documented his music in very erratic fashion on his Saturn label, generally not listing recording dates and giving inaccurate personnel information, so one could not really tell how advanced some of his innovations were. It has taken a lot of time to sort it all out (although Robert Campbell’s Sun Ra discography has done a miraculous job).

Sun Ra was a major innovator. Born Herman Sonny Blount in Birmingham, Atlanta, Ra led his own band for the first time in 1934. He freelanced at a variety of jobs in the Midwest, working as a pianist/arranger with Fletcher Henderson in 1946-1947. He appeared on some obscure records as early as 1948, but really got started around 1953. Leading a big band (which he called the Arkestra) in Chicago, Ra started off playing advanced bop, but was early on open to the influences of other cultures, experimenting with primitive electric keyboards, and playing free long before the avantgarde got established. After moving to New York in 1961, Ra performed some of his most advanced work. In 1970, he relocated his group to Philadelphia, and in later years alternated free improvisations and mystical group chants with eccentric versions of swing tunes, sounding like a spaced-out Fletcher Henderson orchestra. Many of his most important sidemen were with him on and off for decades (most notably John Gilmore on tenor, altoist Marshall Allen, and baritonist Pat Patrick). Ra, who recorded for more than a dozen labels, has been well served by Evidence’s extensive repackaging of many of his Saturn dates, which have at last been outfitted with correct dates and personnel details. In the late nineties, other labels began reissuing albums from Sun Ra’s vast catalog, an effort that will surely continue for years to come.

This year it’s been 10 years since jazz legend and philosopher Sun Ra died. Therefore Kindred Spirits is releasing the dedication album “A Sun Ra Dedication: The Myth Lives On” (Kindred Spirits / KS003). Many contemporary artists / producers from different parts of the music spectrum have been asked to do a cover or inspiration. They all had one thing in common: they were heavily inspired and/or influenced by the live and music of Sun Ra. On a straight jazz tip are Francisco Mora’s (drummer of Sun Ra’s band, the Arkestra) Outerzone Band, Madlib’s Yesterdays New Quintet (feat. Dudley Perkins) and Mocky. Jimi Tenor gives “Love In Outta Space” a soul twist and also Kirk Degiorgio as Offworld comes with a souled out cover of “Astro Black”. Recloose and Theo keep it slightly house and Mustang remains close to his offbeat production, while LA based Build An Ark debuts with a African vibed cover of “Door Of The Cosmos”. King Britt pays homage to his fellow Philly musician on a hip hop tip, while Philip Charles closes off in synthesizer wonderland. We could keep on describing this, but in essence it is all jazz, an experiment, put together by many of the great musicians of today. Sun Ra lives on … forever.

Various Artists – A Sun Ra Dedication: The Myth Lives On (Kindred Spirits / KS003) is in stores now.

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