While the strange trappings of Sun Ra and the Arkestra--the names, costumes, homemade percussion, and space rap that seemed suspended between vaudeville and cult--remained constant, the music was always in development, picking up approaches from the surrounding world and the inner workings of its own processes. The 18 tracks here are drawn from 15 Saturn LPs, a film soundtrack, and two 45 rpm singles, and they range from the earliest Sun Ra recordings in 1956 to 1973, covering the band's odyssey from Chicago to New York to Philadelphia. It was a period that saw the Arkestra evolve from a hard-swinging, modern-jazz big band that was already rhythmically and tonally adventurous to a unique orchestra incorporating large-scale collective improvisation and ritual, then moving on further to a multilayered transformation of funk.
Through it all, Sun Ra maintained a nucleus of brilliant and loyal musicians, with a saxophone section that rivaled Ellington's for durability and sheer brilliance, however different the musical context could be. Its members--including John Gilmore on tenor, Marshall Allen on alto and oboe, and Pat Patrick on baritone--supply highlights throughout this collection. Virtually every track is of special interest, another dimension of Sun Ra's fertile creativity. Trumpeter Hobart Dotson adds a crisp brassiness to the intensely swinging "Saturn," and there are Ellingtonian touches in the plunger-muted trombone of "Medicine for a Nightmare." Early versions of "'Round Midnight," with a vocal by Hattie Randolph, and "I Loves You, Porgy" show Sun Ra's faithful and moving handling of other people's music. The episodic space chant "Rocket Number Nine," from 1960, has a Gilmore tenor solo that parallels period Coltrane and a Ronnie Boykins bass solo that uses bowed upper harmonics in a way that was otherwise unheard of at that time. Sun Ra's lyrical solo piano on "The Alter Destiny" compresses his decades of jazz experience (he began playing with Fletcher Henderson), while "Yucatan" is an episode of dense, propulsive drumming. The concluding "A Perfect Man," originally a 1973 Saturn 45, sounds like a slightly tilted theme for an espionage thriller. For those seeking entry into the sometimes daunting world of a great original, this CD is a good first choice. Identification of key soloists in the liner notes, though, would have been a nice touch. --Stuart Broomer