This is a track by Sun Ra from his album The Lady With The Golden Stockings, recorded around 1958 and released in 1966. Sun Ra, full legal name “Le Sony’r Ra”, born Herman Blount, said a lot of crazy stuff and played some crazy music, some of which I like. But this isn’t crazy, it’s 4:22 of low-voiced cool funk perfection. (“5✭♫” series introduction here; with an explanation of why the title may look broken.)

Sun Ra and June Tyson

Sun Ra and June Tyson; copied with thanks from plexifilm, which looks like a nice place. There were no apparent copyright statements, so I hope I haven’t hurt their feelings.

The Context · Sun Ra, probably born in 1914 (died in 1993), played keyboards, got into jazz early, was a conscientious objector during WWII, then in 1952 got the name change and announced he’d come to earth from Saturn. As the Fifties and Sixties went by, his jazz got increasingly outside, and his dozens of records include plenty of tracks that are all screeching free-form high notes coupled with a thundering horde of disorganized bongos. Sometimes just the horns, sometimes just the bongos, sometimes both. In these works, occasionally voices chant something somewhat but not completely unlike poetry. These have generally not worn well. Just to make sure the visuals were as jarring as the music, Mr. Ra and the band took to appearing in regalia which mostly ancient-Egyptian and entirely bizarre.

But in between the noise, and peering past the outfits, there was some pretty superior jazz being played. A major contributor to the sound and music was saxophonist John Gilmore (no, not that John Gilmore), who at one time gave lessons to John Coltrane (!); those unimpressed by Sun Ra’s Egyptian/Saturnian shtick were sometimes heard to wonder why Gilmore wasted his time in that band.

I don’t remember when I ran across Sun Ra, which is appropriate because it was in the Seventies. My LP collection includes something called Nuits de la Fondation Maeght on a label called “Shandar”, recorded live in France in August 1970. I suspect this is pretty hard to find, which is a pity, because Side A is excellent end-to-end. Side B? OK if you’re an Egyptian-Saturnian phanboy.

I also have a late work on the estimable Rounder label called Something Else, recorded in 1988 and ’89. It only goes slightly outside and has nothing that will change your life, but the title is appropriate because it doesn’t sound much like anything else, every track has rhythmic integrity, and it’s a solid listen.

The Music · Plutonian Nights is straight-ahead cool jazz. The opening rhythm-section makes weird but effective use of the piano’s very bottom strings, then it segues into a conventional horn vamp, except for Gilmore’s bass-saxophone continuo, mixed loud and front and center, is approximately the funkiest sax part in the history of the universe. Eventually you get some nice breaks, clarinet (I think) and bowed bass, then the funky horns come back to shiver your timbers for a minute or so on the way out.

Play this one when there’s people over and they don’t think they’re there to listen to music, and they’ll be asking you what it is and listening hard.

Sampling It · I originally found Plutonian Nights on Napster-that-was because it was pretty well the only Sun Ra out there. A few intervening hunts through record stores to find The Lady With The Golden Stockings led nowhere, but while I was writing this I discovered a CD re-release combining it with The Nubians of Plutonia on sale for a fair price, so I ordered it. Hey RIAA, get a fucking clue.

There’s a sample up on Amazon, you can hear a few seconds of that kozmick bass saxophone.


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February 20, 2006
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