Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Reddit Share on Pinterest Share on Linkedin Share on Tumblr Sun Ra: avant-garde pioneer, space traveler … singles artist? Strut’s three-CD set demonstrates the Arkestra leader’s broad musical range, which happened to include a largely unsung gift for a good three-minute hook. Born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, Sun Ra insisted he was from Jupiter, and many of his albums over his four decades leading the Arkestra feature side-long abstract inventions that still sound out of this world. Yet he came out of Fletcher Henderson’s big band, and until the end of his life, as Ra pushed the boundaries of jazz, he never lost sight of Earth-bound traditions. He even coached a number of doo-wop groups. In fact, one of the very first releases on Saturn Records, the self-run label Ra and his bandmates used throughout his career, was a 45 by the NuSounds performing a fairly conventional version of the standard, “A Foggy Day.” Singles is arranged chronologically, and starts with several tracks that are singles after the fact, early recordings released as 45s by Norton Records and Stop Smiling in the ‘00s. Yet these “singles” are a perfect way to begin this survey. The poetry and music of Sun Ra’s “I Am Strange” reveal the space age persona as full-formed even by the early ‘50s, while The Nu Sounds’ doo-wop travelogue “Chicago USA” show his more conventional side, although even then Ra was prone to unusual harmonies and dissonance. In the space of three minutes, he takes a long musical journey as his vocal charges recite a litany of his adopted town’s highlights; when Ra begins his own vocal solo recitation, you start to believe he really has landed from another planet, bringing his strange music to Earth. The “B-side,” “Spaceship Lullaby,” with its chorus of “Zoom zoom! Up in the air!,” is a missing link between the be-bop staple “Salt Peanuts” and Ra’s anthemic “Rocket # 9,” first recorded in 1960 and released as a single in 1967. Saturn Records (or, as it appears to have been deliberately misspelled for this one release, “Satur”) even released a Christmas/New Year’s 45. In 1956 the doo-wop group The Qualities, recorded a pair of holiday songs co-written by Sun Ra. “It’s Christmastime” b/w “Happy New Year to You” was released as a single five years later, in 1961; such is the haphazardly organized methodology of a label that was known for pressing as many as 75 copies of a record, many of them hand-illustrated by Arkestra members and available for purchase only at concerts. Even more surprising than the Christmas doo-wop single may be the four tracks on which Sun Ra backs up “space age vocalist” Yochanan. A Memphis R&B singer known for a “wild man” persona, Yochanan’s contributions are among the most entertaining in Ra’s catalogue. On “Hot Skillet Mama” (recorded in 1957), the singer comes on like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as the Big Bad Wolf, but weirder. Heavy on material originally recorded in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Singles also includes releases from the ‘70s and later. “I’m Gonna Unmask the Batman,” from 1974, features a walking riff on the Rocksichord and a lyric that may well be a reference to Ra’s uncredited appearance on a toy company Batman record in the ‘60s. The closing “I am an Instrument” is a 1991 rerecording of the ‘50s track that opens Singles. It proves that 40 years later, the world may still not have caught up with him. Singles is full of arcana that wouldn’t logically fit anywhere else in Sun Ra’s immense discography, but a handful of Arkestra tracks are taken straight from albums, including selections from the essential Jazz in Silhouette (1959) that were intended to be released as singles. “Velvet” would have been perfect for the format, coming in with a catchy piano intro before launching into a light mid-tempo swing that would fit right at home on any jazz jukebox. Ra’s space age vision was a showman’s sublimation of alienation as well as a genuine call to his audience to imagine other worlds. The Sun Ra discography is a forbiddingly vast beast, but the intergalactic trappings and free jazz adventures tend to overshadow how irresistibly catchy his music could be. Sun Ra’s Singles may seem to be for completists only, but how many other singles collections give you three and a half hours of consistently surprising music? Longtime fans may well own most of this music, but Strut’s definitive anthology expands on the two-CD Singles released by Evidence in 1996 with 14 more tracks and improved sound, thanks to non-invasive audio restoration by Irwin Chusid. The well-mastered two-volume vinyl edition comes in your choice of three-LP sets or two limited edition boxes each holding 10 45s. Whatever speed you choose, these singles are worth the commitment.