Sun Ra

Album Cover courtesy of Strut Records

In the cosmic world of Sun Ra and his Arkestra there are no coincidences.

The entire course of my college career, from starting at U92 to working at The DA and taking up the Culture Editor position was leading me to pull up Spotify at my desk yesterday (the second day of the Arkestra’s second residency at the excellent experimental jazz venue Cafe Oto in London, by the way). Looking for something new to write about, I saw that Strut Records has compiled "Singles: The Definitive 45s Collection, Vol. 1: 1952-1961," a 65-song box set spanning some of Sun Ra’s best work with everybody from the Nu-Sounds, Yochanan and the Cosmic Rays to Hattye Randolph, Billie Hawkins and Pat Patrick.

Riding the cutting edge of jazz from the ‘40’s onward, Sun Ra helped pioneer everything from modal composition and free improvisation to the use of electric basses and keyboards.

After an out-of-body experience in college that brought him in contact with alien beings on the surface of Saturn (one of the earliest American reports of extra-terrestrials) he developed a personal mythology and spirituality that would guide his work from then on.

Members of the Arkestra and his other ensembles were encouraged to take up new names, bend their musical techniques into new forms, and meditate on Ra’s ideas until they could think in entirely new ways. Because of this practice, Sun Ra’s recordings throughout the years exemplify some of the most free-thinking, wide-ranging attempts at music ever heard.

On "Singles," we’re taken on a journey through all the many forms of Sun Ra.

The first disk of the compilation stays in the more familiar territory of his early work: big-band swing tunes, the cool bebop of tracks like "Supersonic Jazz" and "Saturn," and doo-wop in the form of "Daddy’s Gonna Tell You No Lie." Just in time for the holidays we hear his work with Chicago vocal quartet the Qualities tucked squarely in the middle: "It’s Christmas Time" and "Happy New Year to You!"

A healthy dose of blues makes up most of the second disk, but we begin to partake in some more unusual delights. Here we’re treated to such sonic rites as "Cosmo Drama (Prophetika 2)" and "The Bridge," in which the spacey bandleader preaches his cosmic mythology, punctuated by brass freakouts and cymbal crashes. Slow creepers "Cosmo-Extensions" and "I am the Instrument" play with noise and extended guitar techniques while we also find such great vocal-based performances as "Rocket #9" and the perennial favorite, "Nuclear War."

"Singles" is available from Strut Records as a 12" triple LP, three-CD album or digital. In addition, a deluxe 7" box set containing nine 45s is limited to 500 copies. All orders ship in time for the holidays, making a perfect gift for the coolest cats you know.