Questlove, Dawn Richard and a range of other musicians, writers and critics share their favorites from the experimental pianist, organist and bandleader’s wide-ranging catalog.
By Marcus J. Moore
Jan. 4, 2023
Lately The New York Times has asked jazz musicians, writers and scholars to share the favorites that would make a friend fall in love with Duke Ellington, Alice Coltrane, bebop, Ornette Coleman and jazz vocals.
Now we’re putting the spotlight on Sun Ra, the experimental pianist, organist and bandleader whose idiosyncratic blend of jazz imagined life on other planets. Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Ala., he wore ornate robes and Egyptian headgear, and composed progressive music meant to commune with Saturn, a place he said he felt a connection with after an out-of-body experience in college. “My whole body was changed into something else,” Sun Ra once said. “I could see through myself.” He said aliens spoke to him: “They would teach me some things that when it looked like the world was going into complete chaos, when there was no hope for nothing, then I could speak, but not until then. I would speak, and the world would listen.” In turn, Sun Ra’s music centered on space travel as a form of Black liberation. He believed Black people would never find freedom on Earth, and that real emancipation resided in the cosmos. Over the course of his career, Sun Ra recorded more than 200 albums with his band — called the Arkestra — before his death in 1993 at 79.
Sun Ra’s music can be challenging — both artistically and through the intimidating size of his discography. So while this isn’t a comprehensive list (what could be?), the songs chosen here by a range of musicians, writers and critics represent a cross-section of swing, fusion and free jazz. Enjoy listening to the excerpts or the full playlist at the bottom of the article, and be sure to leave your own Sun Ra favorites in the comments.