It may be difficult to take an album seriously when it has a pink hand-drawn cover. It may also be difficult when the liner notes declare, "21st Century Limited Edition by LE SUN RA and his Arkestra." Yet, very few albums should be taken as seriously as Super-Sonic Jazz. In spite of the packaging’s nonchalant goofiness, Sun Ra’s 1956 effort is one of the finest unknown records in jazz.
Sun Ra’s relative obscurity among jazz listeners has always been a mystery. He was often musically ahead of his time but had a habit of drawing attention for non-musical reasons. He claimed that he came from the planet Saturn and would often wear elaborate costumes during his concerts. In spite of this behavior, constant iconoclastic portrayals of Ra seem to miss the most important point: he was a musician of the highest order. His big band writing was a hybrid of Ellington-like harmonic lines, Basie-like driving swing, and Mingus-like exuberance. Although he is best known for his free-sounding jazz arrangements in the 1960’s, Ra was steeped deeply in the tradition of big band music. This album displays that influence in full tilt.
One of the biggest pleasures of Super-Sonic Jazz is the diversity of music. "India" is a walking oriental groove. "Kingdom of Not" is a medium-tempo blues with hand-claps and sax lines making the chorus. "Super Blonde" holds tight while sounding freer and looser than other swing music of the period. There is also the beautiful ballad-playing of Ra and alto saxophonist James Scales on "Springtime in Chicago." Most of the album has Ra on acoustic piano and the music is infused by the unique swing of his twelve-man group.
Surprisingly, Super-Sonic Jazz also has a dose of electric piano. "India" starts with Ra’s droning modal sound on the instrument. In the slow blues of "Sunology," he solos on acoustic piano and then switches to electric piano while subtly continuing to play chords on the acoustic. On "Advice to Medics," he improvises alone for two minutes using only the electric piano. Ra plays so well that the novelty of the instrument is lost in his hands, even in 1956. Always the innovator, his use of electric piano predated Cannonball Adderley’s use by eight years and Miles Davis’ electric music by twelve years.
"El is a Sound of Joy" might be the most touching and diverse song on the album. It starts with a tympani roll, then becomes a beautiful harmonic line played by the sax section which in turn becomes a swinging baritone sax riff by Pat Patrick. Patrick solos while Ra comps behind him in time, then out of time and then back in time again. Throughout the album, the musicians play with an inspiring combination of individuality and single-mindedness.
Sun Ra’s Arkestra existed from its formation in 1955 until his death in 1993. The range and variety of music played by that group was enormous. For listeners new to Ra’s music and the breadth of his travels, there might not be a better place to start than Super-Sonic Jazz.
For people lucky enough to still hear Ra for the first time, go listen. Fifty years after their creation, the sounds on this album are still waiting to be discovered. Super-Sonic Jazz is living and intelligent big band music.