It’s a toss-up as to who has the more intimidating discography, Sun Ra or Merzbow. I suspect Merzbow has our Saturnian friend beat in terms of sheer size, though: according to Discogs, the Merz has 227 full albums and is still cranking, whilst the Ra’s Arkestra has 140 … although Sunny himself appears on some 250+ discs, and the Ark continues to sail on Sunlessly. But it isn’t the size of the back catalog that’s by itself scary, it’s the magnitude of a question that people also ask when confronted with something like the Gundam anime franchise, which sports something like 24 separate shows and movies: Where the heck do you start?
Short answer: somewhere simple. Meaning with Merzbow, you start with one of his shorter albums that bears at least some resemblance to music as we know it (I’d recommend Merzbuddha). With Sun Ra, the same rule applies — pick a record that won’t scare off most of the audience with twenty-minute freeform jams, and you should be fine. I don’t want to imply that Nuclear War would be the first such choice, but it would fit nicely into a list of ten such starter-kit records from the Ra catalog. Read more
The best description of jazz I can think of is that it’s not a genre of music, but a process, a way of making music where the end result is never quite the same but always somehow jazz. That description remained at the front of my mind all throughout listening to Inspiration Information 3, a collaboration between Ethiopian jazzman Mulatu Astatke and the U.K. musicians’ collective The Heliocentrics. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve heard since the last Fela Kuti record left my stereo — metaphorically speaking, anyway, since I sold off my last slabs of vinyl years ago, but an album like this is excuse enough to buy a turntable all over again.
The name Mulatu Astatke rang too few bells with me when this disc first came my way, and my penance was to go and learn more. Astatke’s career as an Ethiopian jazz maestro kicked off in the ’60s, and stints overseas in both the U.K. and U.S. allowed him to infuse that many more jazz and funk elements into a sound derived from “traditional Ethiopian folk melodies, five tone scale arrangements and elements from music of the ancient Coptic church” (as the press release on Strut Records’ website puts it). He’d perked up more than a few Western ears when his music turned up on the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, and via the Ethiopiques album series, so II3 didn’t come out a complete vacuum. Influences from both sides of the aisle are clear — especially in the ten-minute closer, “Anglo Ethio Suit”, the title of which is a hint at the kind of interchange going on, up there with Ginger Baker sitting in with the Africa ‘70.
Aside from being a perfectly listenable record the way Kind of Blue was, IIS3 (I hate typing that; it makes me think I’m writing about a Microsoft server product) is listenable in a wholly different way: as a specimen of the writhing, sinuous Afrobeat sound which the above-mention Kuti is usually cited as being the main example of. But it’s a deal or two more accessible than Fela — as in, no 15-minute-plus jams; all the songs are actual song-length. This makes it an easier point of entry for those new to Afrobeat or jazz, both of which can be forbidding territory for the uninitiated. It’s a party record where the partying can either be out on the dancefloor or between your ears.