This new set of unheard songs is gripping and challenging, as to be expected from the the free jazz legend. Using oddball orchestrations, Sun Ra unfurls more complexities of the astral realm.
Last year, NASA unveiled the Orbit Pavilion, a domed, aluminum chamber that relays sonic information from space. The sound installation maps individual satellite voices in one track and compresses 24 hours of sound into a single minute in another. The two tracks transmit in tandem, creating a haunting space symphony.
These creaks and echoes bring to mind the work of Sun Ra, who did more than just give space a soundtrack; he navigated star clusters at light-speed. Ra’s sprawling discography surveys the whopping expanse of the cosmos. He quantified and catalogued planets through fits and starts in free jazz. When asked what inspired his compositions, Ra explained that his work came from being in tune with the universe. “The world, the way it is today, is the result of the possible that [people] did—it’s a result of the absolute thing. There’s always something else in a universe as big as this.” Ra’s idea of space was that it was vast but not unknowable—that its possibilities were merely a doorway to greater understanding. On the newly reissued Thunder of the Gods, a challenging and gripping reassemblage of oddball orchestrations played with his Arkestra, Ra unfurled the complexities of the astral realm.
Sun Ra’s free-wheeling, interplanetary jazz epics aren’t just the byproduct of a disciplined and rigorous musical education, a virtuosic musicianship, or an astronomer’s curiosity. Much of the bandleader/composer’s deep interest in space stems from a personal close encounter of the third kind: a trip to Saturn in the late ’30s, which Ra recognized as a call to action from another world. The experience, as he perceived it, was wholly changing and entirely instrumental in the music that would follow—his life’s work, an intense and often quirky diagram of space that helped birth Afrofuturism. His catalog is diverse and all-encompassing: Interstellar Low Ways, Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, and Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy chart constellations with twitchy arrangements anchored by twinkling keystrokes and organ screeches. LPs like Visits Planet Earth and We Travel the Space Ways were more measured and telescopic, hedging toward a magnifying big band sound. But Thunder of the Gods is far more alien in its signals and movements.
“Thunder of the Gods” and “Moonshots Across the Sky” are recordings originally from the 1966 Strange Strings sessions in New York. Strange Strings is perhaps best remembered for Ra “playing” a squeaking door as accompaniment on a 2007 bonus cut—either an act of harmonic experimentation or simply goofball musicianship. But those sessions are best exemplified by “Worlds Approaching”; its grating string playing giving meaning to the LP title and its cacophonous mix simulating a rogue planet’s descent upon earth. Though not truly connected, “Worlds Approaching” shares a similar, frantic energy with its surrounding compositions. Still, these are outliers, even among his strange strings collection. Reed players Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, and Pat Patrick—all largely unfamiliar with strings—picked up guitars, ukuleles, and assorted handmade instruments during those sessions, and the ensemble is most appreciated on “Thunder of the Gods.” For 13 minutes, Ra uses strings as instruments of tension: sawing, creaking, scraping, and whacking.
“Calling Planet Earth — We’ll Wait for You” was later found on tapes from 1972’s Universe in Blue, and the recording got its first official release on the 2014 remaster of the LP. It’s a strange fit on that record, between the title track’s blued-out concept and the swaggering “Blackman” (or “When the Black Man Ruled This Land”) a vision of pharaohs and black sovereignty. “Calling Planet Earth” isn’t a probe of land or color. It’s a translated message broadcast in two parts: contact and invitation. The trumpet burps tap out like morse code. Squawking alto sax and rumbling percussion act as a lead-in to solo oboe runs that erupt and then flatline. The second act is a marvel of sonic impact. Ra’s space organ boots up like a frenzied R2-D2 floating aimlessly through a surging current.
In pieces, on other releases, these recordings are merely mismatched bits. But together, on Thunder of the Gods, they take on new life—deep wave transmissions from across the Milky Way. They’re each slightly askew, bordering on bizarre, yet completely exhilarating. It’s an intergalactic screening turned sci-fi odyssey. There are visions of interstellar travel, premonitions of the moon landing, and parallels to the mythical, relating the scientific with the divine. The intent is clear: “Where human feet have never trod, where human eyes have never seen, we’ll build a world of abstract dreams,” a voice exclaims at the midway point on “Calling Planet Earth — We’ll Wait for You.” Knowing the universe and all of its secrets is a fantasy from an inconceivable future. The way we render its greatest depths and fringes through sound are often merely an attempt to score the intrigue and mystery of the unexplored. Sun Ra dared to imagine outer space as an open channel; not as a window into all that we don’t know, but as a gateway to all that is possible.