Had he lived long enough, Sun Ra, a man equally invested in preserving history and welcoming the future, just might have been a Bandcamp fan. At this point, more than 100 albums by the late keyboardist-composer, Afrofuturist icon, and April 1969 Rolling Stone cover star can be found on the service, many in expanded and remastered versions. Reissues from the Evidence label and Atavistic’s Unheard Music Series helped to keep Sun Ra’s music circulating in the Nineties and early 2000s, but never before has so much of his work been so readily available in one place.
In mid-December, a new title quietly appeared on Sun Ra’s Bandcamp page: Haverford College 1980 Solo Piano. This isn’t canonical Ra by any stretch. (If you’re looking for ideal entry points into his vast catalog, check out writer Patrick Jarenwattananon’s handy 2017 rundown.) A live recording with fly-on-the-wall sound, it features the musician performing alone on Fender Rhodes, instead of at the helm of his famed — and still-thriving — Arkestra. But there’s an offhanded charm to the set that gradually draws you in, almost as though you’re listening to one of the 20th century’s greatest musical minds play stream-of-consciousness cocktail piano, casually joining up beloved standards with heady, extraterrestrially inspired originals.
Check out, for example, Ra’s medley of his own signature tune “Space Is the Place” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” He starts out with around two minutes of gently meandering lyricism, then begins hinting at the “Space” theme. Just as it seems like he’s settling into the piece, he starts working in fragments of the Wizard of Oz classic, and swirling the two songs together. Around the 4:30 mark, he embarks on an abstract excursion that reminds you of his status as a free-jazz pioneer before quickly returning to lush, melodic territory. The final two minutes of the piece play like a real-time psychedelic remix of what’s come before, an eerie commingling of song and pure sound that sums up just what a radical and forward-thinking artist the keyboardist was.
All in all, it’s a great way to ring in 2020 — and a reminder that Sun Ra probably got here first.
Find a playlist of all of our recent Songs You Need to Know selections on Spotify.