The Mindful Bard – Sun Ra and his Arkestra

Album: Gilles Peterson Presents Sun Ra and His Arkestra: To Those of Earth … and Other Worlds (link)
Artist: The Sun Ra Arkestra & Gilles Peterson

“Sun Ra and the Arkestra were the original DIY group. What went on in 1970s punk with self-pressed records and hand-drawn artwork ? Ra was doing that in the ?50s and ?60s. The music was phenomenal – Sun Ra was the man, the ultimate artist for any vinyl collector.”
– Gilles Peterson (DJ, producer, broadcaster)

“He claimed to be the last of the swing band leaders, yet dosed classic songs with LSD. He wrote poetry about the “coming space age” and claimed to be a citizen of Saturn. He dressed himself and his band in gold-lamé and lectured on the Creator’s message to the cruel and deceitful Earthman. He named himself after an Egyptian God. Was this guy for real? Sun Ra was very much for real.”
– Robert L. Campbell (author)

To Those of Earth ... is an amazing compilation of tracks from the career of avant-garde jazz keyboardist and band leader, Sun Ra, whose heyday began in the late fifties. It’s an inviting buffet of inspired creativity, rich musical knowledge, authentic sentiment, masterful musicianship, exciting concepts, and sheer fun. It’s an escape into a dimension where love grabs you and sets you free.

Among the more scintillating musical elements: devilishly clever improvisations, drum kits that swing like nobody’s business, film noir ambience, experimental sounds, moog space sounds, found sounds, tender piano, Coltanesque sax, hardcore funkadelic rhapsodies, and playfully expressive voices breaking in every now and then to sing of love, the sun, and outer space.

It’s not just the music that makes listening to these tracks so titillating. This album is full-to-bursting with rich musical history. DJ, broadcaster, and producer Gilles Peterson personifies a colossal knowledge of living, breathing jazz in motion and is a gifted musical archaeologist. A brilliant musical bloodhound, Peterson unearths buried treasures for hordes of hungry listeners. (There’s an interesting video in which Peterson discusses discovering Sun Ra and His Arkestra, first in record libraries and then in a London club.) Peterson curated this double CD, picking his favourites from Sun Ra’s 125 albums, which couldn’t have been easy.

Then there’s Sun Ra himself. Born Herman Blount in Birmingham Alabama in 1914 (he was later to say of Herman Blount: “That’s an imaginary person, never existed … “), Sun Ra (after the Egyptian sun god) promoted himself as a citizen of Saturn, sent to bring a message of peace to us stupid humans. Judging from his biographical information, the guy must have had an IQ of 200, an autodidact with phenomenal powers of memory, imagination, study, and a capacity to work tirelessly night and day.

How can something be so sixties and still sound so new? When I first listened to this music I had no idea it was over forty years old; I thought it was the vanguard of the avant-garde, some new outgrowth of acid jazz. Now that I know better, I see Sun Ra and his Arkestra as the full flowering of the streams of creative inspiration that flowed through Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, and John Coltrane. Free jazz didn’t die in the sixties? it just went underground. Hallelujah that Gilles Peterson dug it back up.

The band started its weird outer space persona in the fifties (can one think of a less sympathetic era for such esoterica?) and kept going until they were able to influence the explosion of creativity in music that happened in the eighties. And today, even though Sun has gone to his reward, the Arkestra keeps on keepin? on.

You get your money’s worth. This double CD, priced as a single, has 16 tracks?two of them an hour long?and every one boombastic.

To Those of Earth ? and Other Worlds
manifests seven of The Mindful Bard’s criteria for music well worth a listen.

– It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
– It stimulates my mind.
– It harmoniously unites art with social action, saving me from both seclusion in an ivory tower and slavery to someone else’s political agenda.
– It provides respite from a cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.
– It’s about attainment of the true self.
– It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.

Many thanks for the research assistance of Bill Waterman.

Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.