SUN RA CUTS A CULT FIGURE so perfect that there are times I think someone must have made him up—which, in fact, someone did: Herman P. Blount, born in 1914 in Birmingham, Ala., a town whose nickname, "the Magic City," would later provide a title for one of Ra's finest albums. Blount's Saturn-sired alter ego distilled his intense interests in Egyptian history, science fiction, and numerology into a persona whose piano playing, composing, and bandleading straddled nearly the entire history of recorded jazz. The immense amount of music released during his lifetime spans baroque big- and small-band sessions, head-spinning avant-skronk, and tributes to Fletcher Henderson and Walt Disney.
Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel and other reissues (Evidence)
Spaceways Incorporated: 13 Cosmic Standards by Sun Ra and Funkadelic (Atavistic)
That most of this music was issued in pressings that ranged from small to miniscule only enhances the mystery; a mere fraction of Ra's albums were widely available during his lifetime. This situation was rectified in 1993, the year he died, when Evidence began reissuing obscure gems such as Jazz in Silhouette and Super-Sonic Jazz—titles previously released on Ra's own Saturn label.
Now, Evidence has restored another fistful of Sun Ra albums, as well as compiling Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel. Distilling over 200 albums' worth of work into a single, digestible package is practically impossible, and while listening to Hits may be easy, the ride can be bumpy as hell. It's a leap from covers like "I Loves You, Porgy" or "'Round Midnight"—a cheat, given how prolific a composer Ra was—to space fantasias like "The Alter Destiny" and "We'll Wait for You." Still, it's an enjoyable collection.
If it's surprising that the most accessible of the new Evidence reissues after Greatest Hits is a double-CD titled The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums, well, let's just say the air is different on Saturn. Recorded for Impulse! but left on the shelf after his deal with the company fell through, 1973's Cymbals and Crystal Spears find Ra swimming through a post-In a Silent Way sea that honors melody, groove, and shimmering atmosphere equally. Even the weird stuff is fun: The funky electric keyboard abstractions of Crystal Spears' "The Embassy of the Living God" sound like the kind of avant-jazz/electro melding that Carl Craig attempted on last year's Innerzone Orchestra album, Programmed. Of the same ilk, but less successful, is 1978's Lanquidity (originally released on Philly Jazz), which is often pretty but lacks the physical severity that gives the electric Miles Davis albums it emulates such consistent power.
Abstractness comes further to the fore on two other 1973 albums, Pathways to Unknown Worlds and Friendly Love, collected on a single CD. Unfortunately, too much of Pathways falls into the improv clich頯f sounding like a blind drunk stumbling around a toolshed, to no particular effect; Friendly Love is (what else?) friendlier but not particularly inspired. That's not the case with When Angels Speak of Love: This 1966 album is as shapely and sharp as any Ra made in free mode, from the bird-cry horns and reverbed percussion of "Celestial Fantasy" to the madcap, Cecil Taylor-style pianistics paired with John Gilmore's beautifully contained bursts of squawking tenor sax on "The Idea of It All."
Ra's influence on his fellow musicians has always been strong, especially since his work has become more widely available. What's nice about Spaceways Incorporated, the new tribute album to Ra and fellow Afro-futurist George Clinton by the Chicago trio of Ken Vandermark, Hamid Drake, and Nate McBride, is also what's most limiting about it—faithfulness to its sources. Clinton is interpreted unevenly: Vandermark's honking sax instills "Trash a Go Go" with vigor but sounds tepid on "Cosmic Slop," despite the wide-screen swing of bassist McBride and drummer Drake. (And why no "Maggot Brain"?) But the Arkestra material proves meatier: "Tapestry from an Asteroid" is haltingly gorgeous, and the bopping "Future" comes with a contemplative, then charged, simultaneous solo break with Drake sitting out. It might not get you all the way to Saturn, but it's close enough to see the rings.