Kronos Quartet, “Outer Spaceways Incorporated: Kronos Quartet & Friends Meet Sun Ra”

The fourth installment in Red Hot’s Sun Ra tribute series sees the modern classical ensemble taking the reins for an eclectic and suitably experimental interpretation on the jazz legend’s music.

Kronos Quartet, Outer Spaceways Incorporated: Kronos Quartet & Friends Meet Sun Ra

The fourth installment in Red Hot’s Sun Ra tribute series sees the modern classical ensemble taking the reins for an eclectic and suitably experimental interpretation on the jazz legend’s music.

Words: Jeff Terich

June 20, 2024

Kronos Quartet & Friends Meet Sun Ra 
Outer Spaceways Incorporated

Herman Poole Blount took human form upon this planet in Birmingham, Alabama 110 years ago this past May, but he claimed Saturn as his homeland and the Egyptian sun god Ra as his namesake. And even in jazz, where far-out experimentation often saw bolder forays into noise and the avant garde than rock music itself, Sun Ra was unlike any other artist. His influence eclipsed his own commercial success; he bestowed the name “Pharoah” on a young Ferrell Sanders and was a precursor to the likes of Parliament and Funkadelic. Even three decades after his death, his music still retains its wildly innovative spirit, the sounds he pioneered comprising everything from abstract free jazz to spiritual meditations and space-age disco. And with more than 100 albums in his catalog, continuously ripe for rediscovery and untangling, it seems like we’re still just catching up.

It’s no surprise, then, that his music has provided inspiration for an unusually diverse group of artists across jazz, rock, hip-hop, noise, electronic music, and beyond. Last month, coinciding with the anniversary of both Sun Ra’s birth in 1914 and his death in 1993, the Red Hot Organization launched the first of a series of tribute albums, each featuring contemporary artists tackling the music of Sun Ra from different angles. The first saw artists such as Georgia Anne Muldrow and Irreversible Entanglements reinterpreting his ’80s-era atomic-bomb anthems, while subsequent entries included an album curated by Meshell Ndegeocello and one comprising all Brazilian artists. The fourth in the series, Outer Spaceways Incorporated, sees modern-classical icons Kronos Quartet taking the reins for an even more eclectic and suitably experimental take on the music of Sun Ra.

Despite not performing jazz in the most immediate sense, Kronos Quartet feel like a natural choice to take on Sun Ra’s music, particularly given that many of his most curious recordings—like Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy and the aptly titled Strange Strings, both released in 1967—employ oddball string arrangements in addition to more conventional jazz instrumentation. The new comp is also heavily rooted in experimentation, and most of the best takes on Sun Ra’s music here feel more like multimedia sound collage than straightforward performances. The tense, thrilling “Maji,” featuring Jlin, is a tumble of drums and strings driven by the producer’s complex and intricate rhythms. “Daddy’s Gonna Tell You No Lie” with Laraaji juxtaposes the new-age composer’s synths against the exotica rhythms employed by the Sun Ra Arkestra, while “Images Suite,” which features veteran Arkestra bandleader Marshall Allen and some spoken-word elements from Laurie Anderson, sends cosmic ripples through the vibrant swing of the Space Is the Place standout. And all throughout the album, we hear Sun Ra’s own voice offering sooth-sayings such as “Into the realm of eternal darkness.”

Kronos Quartet are curators as much as featured performers on Outer Spaceways Incorporated, and some of the greatest moments are those in which other artists are offered the spotlight. Moor Mother and DJ Haram’s 700 Bliss project channels Sun Ra’s most deep-space transmissions in the hallucinatory “Secrets of the Sun,” while hip-hop duo Armand Hammer deliver characteristically cryptic and hypnotic verses against producer RP Boo’s industrialized rhythmic clang and a buoyant backsplash of horns on the mesmerizing “Blood Running High.”

The whole of Outer Spaceways Incorporated is appropriately otherworldly, sometimes in ways that emphasize the campier space-age aspects of Sun Ra’s persona, at others through the most dissonant of his musical experimentations. It’s a testament to the pioneering sounds and concept of a singular artist, the likes of which we may never see again, but whose bold defiance of the expected continues to live on through these kindred spirits.