Music News

Sun Ra

It's often easy to dismiss Sun Ra (aka Herman Sonny Blount) as an anomaly on the jazz scene, a mischievous prankster who dressed up as an outer-space pharaoh to sell records and fill shows. Often overlooked is the fact that the man could play a piano -- like a demon. It's obvious on his recordings with the Arkestra, where his talents are showcased as a bandleader. For a more focused example, however, look to one of his solo recordings. Piano Recital is a fine place to start.

Mixing it up -- including well-known standards alongside his original compositions -- was one of Ra's favorite tactics. His version of "Take the 'A' Train" begins in a traditional mode before turning into distant thunder heard from open city windows. "Penthouse Serenade" is unrecognizable, as Ra relentlessly pounds the hell out of the song until he playfully reveals the theme to the audience. The highlight of the album is "Love in Outer Space," in which Ra lovingly presents the lyrical theme, throwing in soulful flourishes that showcase his bluesy talents while hinting at his exploratory nature.

At times, though, the disc is burdened with excessive embellishment and unneeded complexities. "Outer Spaceways Inc." sounds repetitive, with little actually being done in the way of dramatic improvisation. Ra's impetuousness gets the better of him on "Honeysuckle Rose," as he loses himself -- and seemingly his direction -- inside endless ornamentation.

Overall, this album's strength is in its fresh performances of familiar material. Hearing many of these songs on solo piano is gratifying, although not revelatory, and it's worth the price of the disc for Sun Ra followers. As a springboard into free jazz for the uninitiated, there are other releases by Sun Ra that would serve that purpose better.

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Frank Romero