June 29, 1987 12:00 PM

Sun Ra Arkestra

Sun Ra, who once claimed he was born on the planet Saturn (though he hasn’t specified where on Saturn), has for the last 30 years or so led an antic big band in what he has called “a free-form excursion into the far reaches of sight and sound.” When he wants to get really far-out, what does he do? He puts out a record of straight-ahead, swinging blues featuring three numbers by Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. Of course the Ra, as friends call him, is really not so far from home when he leads his 14-piece band through pleasingly idiosyncratic renditions of Kern’s Yesterdays and / Dream Too Much (with a shaggy vocal by the bandleader) and Berlin’s Say It Isn’t So. Beneath Sun Ra’s sequined headdress and astrologer’s cape beats the heart of a man born (some 70-plus years ago) in Birmingham, Ala. and raised in such cosmic climes as Gary, Ind. Free-form improvisation, dance, poetry, African rhythms, futuristic costumes and lighting effects have been a mainstay of Arkestra concerts since the late ’50s, making the band one of the earliest avant-garde jazz outfits. Sun Ra was probably one of the first pianists to use electronic keyboards. But interludes of bedrock jazz, from bop to Fletcher Henderson, have always materialized like asteroids out of his band’s dissonant swirl. In recent years, this fundament (which is Sun Ra’s own: He played for Henderson, Coleman Hawkins and Stuff Smith in the ’40s) has come to the fore. Now appears a Sun Ra album decipherable even by those who don’t know their way around Saturn. This is a brash, loose, yet highly disciplined and talented band, anchored by the three horsemen of the Rapocalypse, saxophonists Marshall Allen, John Gilmore and Pat Patrick. The album is driving, joyous, whimsical, tipsily sentimental, encyclopedic in its blues references. The title cut, by the bandleader, is an after-hours jam in the freewheeling spirit of Kansas City in its prime. Maybe that’s what Saturn is like all the time. (Black Saint)

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