As the longest-tenured member of the Arkestra (55-plus years and counting as of 2014), there is no one with a deeper understanding of the music of Sun Ra than Marshall Allen, and that's part of what makes In the Orbit of Ra such a special collection. The Arkestra's long history is often divided into musical/geographic periods or spoken of as a progression from inside to outside playing. This set spans from the late '50s to the late '70s but the non-chronological sequencing shows how artificial those stylistic boundaries are.
It seems uncanny in retrospect, but the first time I encountered Sun Ra’s music was as a teenager watching MTV. The passing of the avant-garde jazz composer born Herman Blount in May of 1993 was reported in the midst of broadcasting “Whoomp! (There It Is)” and “Whoot, There It Is” videos, which seems as incongruous as if news of Captain Beefheart’s passing had merited mention during "Jersey Shore" commercial breaks (it didn’t). There’s still no news item that seems quite like a transmission beamed from the stars as having Kurt Loder suggest that viewers investigate Sun Ra’s extraterrestrial 1963 album, Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy.
This year would mark the 100th birthday for jazz legend Sun Ra. But, for a performer as prolific, ever-changing, and tough to pin down, how do you celebrate? How do you provide a retrospective on a career that felt so much more like a life, one that was messy, strange, and beautiful? The answer, it seems, is to let Sun Ra’s long-time collaborator and Arkestra member Marshall Allen put together a two-disc collection of Sun Ra’s performances with various incarnations of his Arkestra. The resulting compilation, In the Orbit of the Ra, smartly avoids trying to put a clear label on Sun Ra’s sound and legacy, and instead presents it in all its complicated glory.
The perennial problem with Sun Ra is where on Earth (or indeed elsewhere) to start. By the time of his death in 1993, the greatest of all jazz eccentrics had released comfortably more than 100 albums spanning five decades. The space-obsessed composer, musician and bandleader’s discography is so mythic in its scope – and so erratic in its documentation – that people have devoted literally years to simply figuring out what was released and when.
As one of the most prolific musicians to have ever lived (releasing over 150 albums, 180 of which can be found listed here), Sun Ra is an artist for whom compilations offer a necessary gateway for potential fans otherwise put off by the bewildering diversity of his recorded output. Many are already available –Greatest Hits: Easy Listening For Intergalactic Travel on Evidence, Out There A Minute put out by Blast First and Mute, and more recently the three disc A Space Odyssey: From Birmingham To The Big Apple on Fantastic Voyage Music, to name but three. For the centenary of Sun Ra's birth, Strut Records have joined forces with Art Yard to release a 20 track double album containing cuts all chosen by current band leader Marshall Allen, including the previously unreleased 'Trying To Put The Blame On Me', Part 1 of 'Reflects Motion' and an extended version of 'Island In The Sun'.