For proof of extraterrestrial life, tune in to the music of Sun Ra, an exotic, brilliant keyboardist who began his jazz career as an arranger for big band leader Fletcher Henderson under his earth name Herman "Sonny" Blount. Over the past four years, Evidence Music, a suburban Philadelphia label, has been preparing a follow-up to its extraordinary 1996 compilation of Sun Ra singles. Lanquidity and Greatest Hits are two of five just-released Evidence CDs that will cement the reputation of a musical trailblazer who traversed the spaceways from 1914 to 1993. Recorded under his own name with the Myth Science Arkestra and the Astro Infinity Orchestra, Ra's work is extraordinarily diverse and singular.
Lanquidity is a reissue of Sun Ra's rarest release, a 1978 groove album recorded in Philadelphia that's so relaxed, it's downright noodly at times. Its five tracks are superficially casual, though the threat that lurks in the shadows of Sun Ra's music -- and gives it its drama -- is never distant. The tunes are tutorials in acid jazz, reflecting the brilliant pun in the album title and showing why Sun Ra's music has influenced texture/beat specialists as diverse as Funkadelic, Phish, and even the fusion-era Herbie Hancock. Sparked by the bass clarinet of Ego Omoe, Ra's architectonic piano, trumpets that etch an indelible funk groove, and the Disco Kid's snaky guitar, "Where Pathways Meet" sounds like an encounter between Charles Mingus and the Ohio Players. Culled from 15 different Sun Ra albums recorded on his own El Saturn label, singles, and a movie soundtrack, Greatest Hits effectively demonstrates his eclecticism. "Saturn" swings like crazy -- Ra's voicings blend the articulate and the spacious to remarkably dramatic effect. "Round Midnight," with a velvety and sadly uncredited vocal, is a beautiful cover of the Monk standard; "When Angels Speak of Love" is infinitely patient and tender; and the insistent drums and sinuous saxophone in "Yucatan" evoke a house party in Atlantis. This is rare stuff, well presented and, for the most part, well annotated.