“People are sleeping, and I’m here to wake them up from their slumber.”
That’s how Sun Ra responded when Philly Jazz Records owner Tom Buchler visited the late jazz giant at his Philadelphia apartment early in the summer of 1978 in an attempt to discuss the upcoming studio session that would yield the album Lanquidity.
In the liner notes assembled especially for a new expanded double-disc edition of the album, Buchler recalls his expectations: “I thought Ra and I would discuss recording logistics,” Buchler writes. “What I got [instead] was metaphysics.” Buchler returned to Sun Ra’s home several more times, which “produced no further logistical negotiations, but lots more cosmo-mythology—life, truth, lies, God, ego, outer space, the White House, [and] the Black House were [all] discussed.”
Of course, anyone familiar with Sun Ra can easily picture the train of thought those conversations must have followed, which is easy to reconstruct thanks to multiple longform monologues with Ra expounding on likeminded topics that are now available online. By the time he met Buchler, Ra—born Herman Blount, but later changing his legal name to Le Sony’r Ra—had advanced his central message for decades. In short, Ra was convinced that humankind was in a vulnerable position, spiritually adrift in a universe populated by more advanced beings on whose help our future survival hinges. In the spring semester of 1971, Ra served as artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley, lecturing for a course cross-listed in the course catalog as “Sun Ra 171” and “African-American Studies 198.” One such lecture, titled, The Black Man in the Cosmos, locates racial dynamics within a cosmic struggle involving forces beyond human comprehension.
In this respect, Lanquidity doesn’t really depart from the thematic thrust that so defines Sun Ra’s work and, indeed, all of his public commentary. Tracks like “Where Pathways Meet” and “There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You Of)” explicitly reference Ra’s ongoing preoccupation with both the cosmos and other dimensions of existence, as well as his longstanding affinity for ancient Egyptian symbology as a gateway to other realms in both a metaphorical and literal sense. To that end, the album serves its intended purpose as a vehicle to get listeners to project themselves through those gateways. For all its esoteric/philosophical high-mindedness, Ra’s music tends to spell out exactly what it’s meant to do.
Stylistically, however, Lanquidity marks a departure from previous work in some crucial respects. For one, by this time in 1978—just two months after they appeared on Saturday Night Live—Ra and his Arkestra had downshifted from the more assertively avant-garde stylings they had become known for on titles such as 1965’s The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra (all three volumes) and 1967’s Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy (recorded in 1963). In a nutshell, Lanquidity captures the Sun Ra Arkestra trying its hand at funk without actually surrendering to the spartan formula that gives funk its body-moving essence.
For three of the album’s five tracks, drummer/percussionists Atakatune, Russell “Odun” Branch, Luqman Ali and Michael Anderson lay down simple grooves that are nothing if not accessible. Still, those grooves, as funky as they are, move along at a snail’s pace, as if the band members had all taken sedatives before hitting record. This effect is especially pronounced on the crawling, 11-minute album closer “There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You Of).” By this point, Ra and company were no longer looking to shatter conventional notions of harmony and melody, as they had done so dramatically throughout the ‘60s. Nevertheless, Lanquidity showcases the band stretching song structure to the brink of formlessness—combine the “languid” and “liquid” qualities of the music, and the album title gives you an accurate sense of what you’re in for.
Meanwhile, Ra and the horn section—longtime mainstays John Gilmore, Eddie Gale, Danny Ray Thompson and current Arkestra bandleader Marshall Allen—apply sandpaper to the funky foundation in the form of dissonance both subtle and overt. On “When Pathways Meet,” Ra’s piano chords send stray notes jutting awkwardly (albeit intentionally) against the hummable, Ohio Players-meet-Henry Mancini/Peter Gunn melody that forms the main basis of the tune. On the gentle “Twin Stars of Thence,” standup bassist Richard Williams takes a succinct—again, funky—bassline and purposely stretches one note in the second half of the line so that it rings slightly out of tune, as Ra’s Fender Rhodes and electric guitars from Dale Williams and Mark Anthony sparkle in the foreground.
The dragging cadence and liberties with tunefulness give Lanquidity a sonic warpage through and through. But here it’s important to remember that this was an ensemble led by a composer who could arguably match the likes of Count Basie and Ellington/Strayhorn in sophistication. Prior to taking things “out” during the ‘60s, the Arkestra had long proven that it was capable of playing it “straight” with its own beautifying takes on big band swing, bebop, ragtime and other traditional jazz forms. If they were bending pitch and tempo, one has to presume they were doing it on purpose. And when whispers dart all over the stereo field before the familiar, resounding voice of June Tyson sings, “There are other worlds that wish to speak to you,” the band highlights its singular affinity for playing up the tension between elegance and chaos.
Sun Ra left behind a body of recorded music so vast that it requires an 850-page book to find your way through it. To date, there are well over 100 albums and countless 45 singles, many of which were self-released in limited-edition small runs. Much like the case of Frank Zappa, the sheer volume of material always begs the question, “Where does one even start?” Hardcore fans of both artists may hit each other over the head debating the answer, but the answer is actually quite simple: Just start somewhere. In this case, you don’t have to be a fan of Sun Ra, of jazz, of experimental music, or even of music in general. All you have to be is curious. Lanquidity is an album that both piques and rewards that curiosity while often presenting itself in the guise of fusion-tinged funk.
In other words, it’s as good a place as any to drop in on Sun Ra’s universe. The album represents yet another example where the Sun Ra Arkestra made music that matched the cosmological scale Ra aspired to communicate to the world. If Ra and company hadn’t been able to properly back up his ideas in sound, all the gestures to ancient Egypt and outer space, the costumes, etc., would have fallen flat. One could even make the argument that there are drawbacks to using ancient Egyptian civilization as a projection device for one’s own musings on the nature of the universe. Lanquidity, however, never descends into hokeyness. It still convinces because, like so much of Sun Ra’s work, it almost dares the listener, as if hidden in the whispers was a message: “Transcend thyself. Reach higher.“
Reissued once already in 2000, this new expanded edition of Lanquidity comes with an alternate mix of the entire album (which, admittedly, doesn’t sound all that different than the original). An oversized 12-page booklet with never-seen photos, however, along with recollections from some of the participants, makes for a handsome, worthwhile package for the dedicated and casual fan alike.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. He also dreams of being a “setlist doctor” to the bands you read about in these pages, and has started making playlists for imaginary shows that your favorite band never actually played. You can read his work, listen to his interviews and playlists at feedbackdef.com, and find him on Twitter.