Do you like jazz music? How about playful spins on well known pop-culture songs? What about artists who assume crazy public identities and refuse to break from character in public? No, I'm not talking about the early pre-major label deal work of Lady Gaga. I'm talking about Sun Ra and His Intergalaxtic Arkestra. Sun Ra developed an musical, literary, and personal philosophy based on his public persona. He claimed to be an Angel from Saturn. He believed in peace above all else. His music was controversial for incorporating electronic elements into a traditionally acoustic form, though he had a devoted following from the 1950s until his death in 1993. He toured with an "Arkestra," an intentional mispelling to add to the expansive mythology of his character
My favorite album in their collection is a cover of Disney songs called Second Star to the Right. They do "When You Wish Upon a Star," "I'm Wishing," and "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" among others. It's a great introduction to what Sun Ra was about. You'll recognize the songs, but they'll be presented in a very different way.
Today's track for The Library does not come from this album, but a connected project. It comes from a Disney tribute album called Stay Awake. This featured a variety of artists putting their own spin on Disney classics.
I would be disappointed if an artist as strange as Sun Ra did not choose the trippy classic "Pink Elephants on Parade" for an album like that. The song is the drunken hallucination of a young elephant who has hit rock bottom before he's even grown into his ears. It is upbeat, odd, and instantly memorable.
Sun Ra, strangely enough, actually manages to normalize the song a little bit. From the opening few seconds, you know this recording is going to be different. The arrangement actually flips the pattern of the trumpets that opens the song. Once the drums kick in, the Arkestra layers the song with synchopation and more expansive instrumentation.
About a minute in, Sun Ra and the Arkestra start to sing the melody in a creepy style. It's like the elephants have become Legion and will eat your soul. It's remarkable. They don't change a note of the melody; they just sing it as if they were offering a poisoned apple to a runaway princess. The vocal is a great act of misdirection as the beat gets changed again and again until "Pink Elephants" is a full on jazz song.
Indeed, the breakdown in the film that leads to the skiing and Egypt sequences is how Sun Ra makes the song a Sun Ra song. After flute and trombone solos, the song becomes a jazz piano showcase. It's a master class in restraint during improvisation. It still sounds like the instrumental sections of the original song; it's just put into a whole new musical vocabulary. You know what has to come next. You've heard the song before. You just don't know how Sun Ra is going to take you there with his piano solo.
Just as soon as you think you have a handle on the track, it ends. It does not leave you wanting more. That would suggest that Sun Ra and His Intergalaxtic Arkestra didn't get this just right. It's such a perfect distillation and variation on a great song that anymore could upset the balance the song creates. It is simply a bizarrely beautiful jazz track that any music fan should be proud to have in their collection.
So what do you think? Any favorite Sun Ra recordings? Will you add this one to your collection? Sound off below.