Off-Ramp | Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: Sun Song by Sun Ra

The closest a Lutheran boy gets to celebrating a bar mitzvah is a relatively somber little occasion called confirmation.  It represents the culmination of learning church doctrine, and you stand before the altar in robes with your peers.  It also represents getting a nice chunk of change from relatives and family friends.  In my case, I considered myself lucky for amassing fourteen dollars of mad money.  Don't laugh.  Fourteen dollars in 1970 translates to seventy dollars today.  (Okay, you can laugh a little.)  My plan was to take the whole bundle to Wax Museum on Lake Street, where used records were $1.92 each.  I'd be able to bring home seven albums, a huge collection enhancement in those days.  Specifically I hoped to bring home some Sun Ra music.

Sun Ra had stolen my imagination from a tiny snippet I heard on the astonishing esp-sampler.  I could not find his records at Musicland, but that didn't stop me from dreaming, one night, that he and his band hovered over our house in Minnetonka in a floating craft, dropping down pamphlets of some esoteric import.  At a festival in North Minneapolis, I found a hand-bound book of his poetry (now sadly lost), in which Mr. Ra plied his cosmic equations upon the unsuspecting reader.  What I understood about Sun Ra was that he was obsessed with (some would say intimately acquainted with) outer space, played free jazz, and directed a band with great theatricality, dressed in home-made robes, capes, and head gear.

I scored at Wax Museum, bringing home used, somewhat scratchy, copies of The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Volume 2 and the disc under consideration, Sun Song.  I especially like Sun Song because, recorded in 1956, it highlights a decidedly straight-ahead showcase of fascinating large-ensemble arrangements.  The same Sonny Blount who had arranged some charts for Fletcher Henderson is shown expanding his vocabulary.  In addition to standard drum set, a tympanist adds to the timbral potpourri.  Baritone sax extends the low-frequency balance to the more standard complement of piano, electric guitar, trombone, trumpet, alto and tenor saxes.

There is a poetry in the titles that an H.P. Lovecraft fan could love: "Brainville," "Call for All Demons," "Street Named Hell," "Lullaby for Realville," and humorously, "Fall Off The Log."  His later Arkestras would have more cacophony, more free-blowing, though never far from the swinging propulsion and blues-based modality with which Sun Ra instilled his extensive catalogue of compositions.  I was fortunate to see Ra live in various settings, including as a soloist, and I was pleased to meet him in person as he signed one of his famous unlabeled white cover records for me.  Although Sun Ra has left the universe, his highly disciplined Arkestra still tours under Ra's long time multi-instrumentalist, Marshall Allen.

This concert footage from the 1976 Montreux Festival boasts the band with June Tyson's singing and the Arkestra's dancers.  It ends with the delightful Jelly Roll Morton classic, "King Porter's Stomp," given the Arkestral treatment.

Safe space travels!