sunra[xrr rating=4.5/5]Herman Poole Blount was born in Birmingham, Alabama. But as musician, showman and space traveler Sun Ra, he insisted he was from Saturn. Ra crated a mythology around himself and his Arkestra that revolved around the futuristic and interplanetary, themes that suited his forward-looking music. But if Ra and his music anticipated a sometimes volatile, sometimes joyous future, his space themes reflected an acute sense of alienation, a stranger in a strange land that was his own home.

The Sun Ra discography is vast and complicated. For years, much of Ra’s music was only available on his own Saturn label. And what a label! Many of its releases featured hand-illustrated covers and were sold exclusively at concerts, pressed in runs that were sometimes barely more than a few hundred copies. This scarcity can lead to material that is fetishized for its scarcity, but a series of reissues (some more legitimate than others) have made Ra’s music more readily available than ever before. The variety of releases can still be daunting to visitors new to his universe. Enter reedman Marshall Allen. The oldest surviving member of Sun Ra’s group has led the Arkestra since Ra left the planet in 1993. Allen has assembled a compilation that is an excellent if limited introduction to the mysterious man’s music, which is not so mysteriously beautiful.

Ra’s early musical career was spent in big bands and the blues, Fletcher Henderson and Wynonie Harris. But as the title In the Orbit suggests, this set works around the concept of space travel and alienation. “Somewhere in Space,” originally released on the 1960 album Interstellar Low Ways, launches the album with an appropriate artist’s statement. This is music that is foreign and modern, but that clearly comes from jazz tradition. A spacey march rhythm on piano backs up a horn arrangement that could have easily emerged from Ra’s time with Fletcher Henderson. A tenor solo by longtime Ra standby John Gilmore unfortunately sounds like it was recorded some distance from the mike, and this too is an apt starting point for his music. If you dig into the Ra discography at all, you will hit some terrible audio documents. The arrangement seems strange, the horns not all in sync, but that texture drives the sense of space. This is “Somewhere in Space” after all, the music of a man who feels more at home on other worlds. Speaking of terrible recordings, you need go no farther than “Somebody Else’s World,” a 1969 recording that sounds compressed on top of the clearly less than ideal conditions. But as a showcase for vocalist June Tyson, and a continuation of Ra’s spaceman as outsider theme, it’s essential content if highly compromised product.

This set is meant for the beginner. Every Ra fan would likely put together a completely different set, but there is at least one track that would be on every fan’s version of that set. Recorded in 1960 in the Earthly realm of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but still sounding like something from future space today, “Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus” is an anthemic avant-garde “Salt Peanuts.”

In the Orbit includes longer versions of previously released material as well as two previously unreleased cuts, one of which is a revelation. “Trying to Put the Blame on Me” is a previously unreleased piano/vocal ballad that, although musically spare, sums up his ethos: “This world is strange/ Strange world to me/ What is its meaning?” “I feel alone/ So all alone/ Like a different kind of being.” “Trying to make me feel ashamed.” The album’s liner notes don’t point out a biographical note that puts these lyrics, and Ra’s philosophy of alienation, into a poignant context: Ra was gay.

“Angels and Demons at Play,” from 1960, starts with a great Ronnie Boykins bass line that anticipates the Arkestra’s live staple “Watusi.” Allen takes lead on flute here, and you get the sense the veteran Arkestra member is using the recordings at hand to piece together a set that approximates the experience of a live show.

Disc two samples some of Ra’s ’70s material before going back to the ’60s. Vocalist June Tyson takes the lead vocal on the anthemic “Astro Black,” a 1972 recording from Ra’s brief major label tenure with ABC/Impulse, which provided quality studio time and major-label reissues of some of their early material. Classic ’60s Ra albums like Atlantis and The Magic City (neither of which is represented on this set) weren’t released on ABC/Impulse until the ‘70s, but still sounded ahead of their time despite sub-par recording quality.

“Dance of the Cosmo Aliens,” loosely based on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” was recorded live in Italy in 1978 for the album Disco 3000, one of the most intriguing titles in the Ra discography. It lives up to its title, and the track is the only place on this compilation with a lineup that includes latter-day Ra veteran Michael Ray on trumpet. Unfortunately, he doesn’t even solo. For a better showcase of Michael Ray, potential Ra fans are directed to the quartet recordings made in the late ‘70s for the Horo label. New Steps, my favorite of that era, is available on iTunes and can be streamed on Spotify. But the lack of Michael Ray is a complaint coming from someone who knows the music. If you don’t, even the limited reach of In the Orbit has the potential to give you a lifetime of music to chew on. Digitally-minded newbies who want great music and better sound quality should investigate the recent iTunes campaign of remastered Sun Ra albums, many of which feature sound quality that vastly improves upon previous releases. But In the Orbit is a fine place to start, and it’s on vinyl too.

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