A good accessible point of entry for Sun Ra: check out “Sound of Joy”–you can hear all the stylistic influences, be bop, early modal etc–he was very in tune with what was trending in post 1958-9 jazz; intriguing when you think that some this record is from 1956-7. On this disc is a great short tune “El Viktor”–short and to the point like a part of an Ellington suite. Just heard it on Pandora. I have the cd and a reissue of the vinyl (somewhere). Leave it to the interwebs to get us old guys digging through our records! Sun Ra’s band was also experimenting with groove bass lines under non-tonal solos at the same time Ornette was setting melody free.
The ensemble writing is low, the piano part is a typical Sun Ra ostinato, not “comping” but a texture and a linear element all its own. Unisons, descending lines and counterpoint without too much block “shout” voicing, again like some Ellington, and also other large and smaller ensembles of the era — certainly a sound that Mingus dug, multi-layered, evocative.
When the piano is doing something other than regular jazz comping it makes the bottom of the band sound different: more distinctive, more stand-out? The bass is texturally all alone and becomes SO important. In so much of this type of music the piano is either not there or is playing a groove or ostinato part…things just seem different…think of the tunes on “Birth of the Cool” that don’t have piano, or much of Gerry Mulligan’s work, no piano, or even Gill Evans–Sun Ra seems to have this sensibility even though he plays quite a bit in his music, it’s different…is the piano another layer and not just a rhythm instrument and harmonic machine? Ellington sure played like this a lot–playing answering parts, ostinatos, high riffs–so little “comping” and playing along (especially as compared with someone like Earl Hines.)
If you approach Sun Ra from the perspective of listening to the layers it usually makes sense, even though harmonically or texturally it might seem purposely obtuse or dense or even over the top. Linear writing is something that we computer dudes sometimes forget about, especially when scoring for large ensemble. Doubling up 4 guys on 2 linear parts moves just as much air as a big voiced-out chord, and unisons have forward motion and are more…dare I say….sustainable? Ask anyone who’s played with Stan Kenton.
If you want to hear great examples of Ellington’s linear style check out “Far East Suite” or “Such Sweet Thunder”–ostinato piano, bass, counterpoint, some traditional voicings and ensemble work but much more spare.