More than a quarter-century after his death, there’s still a legitimate debate over whether Sun Ra was a genius or a charlatan. That question arises again with the reemergence of his slim body of solo work. His identity was so tied up in his big bands that an album of solo piano pieces seems shocking. Sun Ra (né Herman Blount) made these recordings in an unknown location, probably his home, on inferior equipment in 1966 (you can hear a telephone ringing on one track). Thirteen of the 22 songs were pressed to two volumes of Monorails and Satellites LPs in the ’60s, the first of which made it to CD. Volume three, which contains the strongest performances, has never seen the light of day before.
No one would ever mistake Sun Ra for Art Tatum or Erroll Garner, or even Thelonious Monk. His approach favors minor-key block chords, spiky notes, and jackhammer repetition. At times, one can almost hear him searching for the proper harmonizing chord, suggesting a deliberate nature that’s missing from both his synthesizer explorations and his swing-band deconstructions.