JAZZ STARTER KIT: Sun Ra’s ‘Atlantis’

An iconic portal for entering the galaxy of Sun Ra.

It can be daunting to approach the vast catalog of jazz giant Sun Ra, which totals nearly 70 mystical albums, spanning from 1956’s Jazz to 1990’s Mayan Temples.

Ra’s discography, of which many titles were released under his own label, El Saturn, features various iterations of The Arkestra, and can hardly be pinned down by blanket terms. While oft-used descriptors like “free jazz,” “space jazz,” “Afrofuturism,” “cosmic mysticism” or simply “experimental” are incomplete, they do offer some basis for understanding the complex universe of Sun Ra.

And so we begin our journey with 1969’s iconic Atlantis.

Atlantis was recorded in two parts: Side A was cut at Sun Studios between ‘67 and ‘69, and Side B (consisting entirely of the 22 minute title piece) was recorded live in ‘67 at the Olatunji Center of African Culture in New York.

The sides are unified by Ra’s prominent use of the electric clavinet, which he called his “Solar Sound Instrument,” but they also contrast sharply in several key ways. “Mu,” “Lumeria” and “Yucatan” begin the record with slow-paced, almost lo-fi grooves driven by organ, guitar and soft percussion, building into “Bimini,” a percussive cacophony that’s definitely worth spacing out to.

Side B’s “Atlantis” begins with scattered drums and solar flares of clavinet chords, but quickly evolves into an otherworldly soundscape indicative of both cosmic and underwater worlds. The chaos is pervasive, but settles around the halfway point for a brief respite of spacey organ melodies, which again evolve into beautifully organized chaos.

Sun Ra’s significance in the underground ‘60s culture of Chicago’s south side, and his influence on “the era’s African American embrace of science and technology” (Kreiss, 2013) can hardly be summed up in this brief review. For further reading check out Corbett & Elm’s book, Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn and Chicago’s Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-68.

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