Jazz in Silhouette (1959)
Across the Sun Ra Arkestra’s 100-plus albums, recording quality varies with almost as much unpredictability as the band’s stylistic twists and pivots. Compared to many other bootleg-esque obscurities, Jazz in Silhouette is a pristine document of Sun Ra’s gifts as an arranger. “Enlightenment” is one of Ra’s all-time classic contributions to American music, and “Ancient Aiethopia” points towards the Afrocentric influence on both his music and philosophy.
Music from Tomorrow’s World (recorded 1960)
On the other hand, this live recording (unreleased until 2002) is a snapshot of the Arkestra performing for an appreciative barroom crowd, complete with cash registers ringing at all the right moments. Ra’s fascination with Egyptian mythology and alternative histories of civilization renders the lyrics of the “Porgy & Bess” tune “It Ain’t Necessarily So” particularly salient: “The things that you’re liable/ To read in the Bible/ It ain’t necessarily so.”
This classic LP showcases the Arkestra updating with the times, beginning with the dulcet Rhodes and serpentine oboe in the title track and rolling straight into the hard funk of “Where Pathways Meet.” An uncharacteristically downtempo album, and a clear influence on crate-diggers and beatmakers who would emerge decades later.
Sun Ra was one of the first keyboardists in jazz to incorporate electric and electronic sounds, and on this highly innovative recording, he uses a Hohner clarinet to weave unpredictable zig-zags in sonic space. Meanwhile, loads of percussion tumble with simultaneous urgency and aimlessness. While a fair share of the Arkestra’s output can be enjoyed independent of the sci-fi conceit, Atlantis is legitimately otherworldly.
Second Star to the Right: Salute to Walt Disney (recorded 1989)
A tribute to a fellow traveler with a huge imagination? Whatever the motivation, this late-era Arkestra recording was made before what must have been a slightly baffled audience of Austrians just four years before Sun Ra’s exit from Earth. Marshall Allen turns in a truly stunning solo on “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and “The Forest of No Return” is diabolically goofy. Fun for all ages.