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.
His 17 originals incorporate blues, bop, balladry, and the avant-garde, sometimes all at once. “Space Towers” is built on a simple chord progression that sprouts contrapuntal, arrhythmic offshoots, and the tune that follows, “Cognition,” is almost exactly like it—in the same key—but with a choppy, childlike attack from the right hand. The weirdest song here is “The Ninth Eye”: nine minutes of staccato chords and prickly clusters that start, stop, circle back on themselves, and rumble, with occasional suggestions that a blues might emerge. Sometimes he’s contemplative: The elegant “Skylight” contains echoes of “‘Round Midnight,” a tune he was known to play, and “The Eternal Tomorrow” is genuinely pretty. His renditions of the standards are melodically faithful, but he makes them his own rhythmically—adding a dash of herky-jerkiness to “Don’t Blame Me,” switching between andante and boogie-woogie on “Gone With the Wind.” But then there are pieces such as “Blue Differentials” and “Monorails and Satellites” that feel like mere sketches, as though he was just getting down ideas that he’d return to at a later date. The weakest of these, “Solar Boats,” is nothing more than five minutes of brutal banging around on a four-note motif.
Is Sun Ra’s larger-than-life persona the reason we enjoy this collection so much? If this were a new recording by a young pianist, would we dismiss it? Is this a great work of art or was Sun Ra putting one over on us? After repeated listens, these questions are still hard to shake.