Musicians have been making "future music" since humankind was self-aware of existing in a modern period and correspondingly excited for what was to come. Such compositions can be considered both ahead of their time and also showcase the artist's personal vision of Tomorrowland. At times innovative, “future music” is often just overproduced, audiophile crap that will eventually end up on a free compilation album provided by Bose as a show-off CD for their new sound system. Nevertheless, it seems somewhat obvious that when a technologically advanced instrument enters the musical universe, it usually makes the more progressive artists giddy and provides a strong catalyst to make forward-looking music (Herbie Hancock, Brian Eno, Radiohead, etc.). So, given the massive acceleration in technological advancements over the past 50 years, it really comes as no surprise that musicians have become increasingly infatuated with the future. Perhaps due to the ease of allowing a computer to take on more of the creative workload, there is now a surplus of techno with themes centering on robots, mathematical ascension, oppressive totalitarian regimes, and other now-standard symbols for the future. Has it yet become clichéd that today’s future is routinely envisioned as a cold place where simple synthesized melodies serve as our desperate communication over the daily grind of 4/4 house beats?
Sun Ra was always obsessed with the future. Whether he was shocking the jazz world by using unconventional electric instruments in his Arkestra or serving as Earth's official ambassador to Saturn, Mr. Ra was constantly fixated on the days beyond. Ironically, though, the self-proclaimed "afrofuturist" was constantly looking to the past for the inspiration to best depict his musical visions, particularly to those ancient Egyptian periods which borne his name. Yet for his 1966 solo album Monorails and Satellites, Sun Ra did not revert to the pyramids for inspiration, but instead decided to revisit his roots as a prodigious piano playing youth from Birmingham.
Best known for his maximalist compositions, lingering improvisations, and silly stage costumes, Sun Ra's genius was occasionally obscured by his elaborate (and often gimmicky) image. It is on his rare solo albums where we can get a clear view of the bones of his convoluted imagination. On such instances, he proves it is not necessary to use a modern instrument that mimics satellite noises in order to conjure up images of orbiting spacecraft -- a simple piano can suffice just fine. Whereas Monorails and Satellites may be considered avant-garde in comparison to most solo jazz piano albums (especially among others released in the mid-‘60s), it still serves as Sun Ra's most beautiful, most accessible, and most likeable picture of the future.
The first two songs on Monorails and Satellites, "Space Towers" and "Cogitation," with their percussive, off-rhythm driving chords, stage our future at a bustling place, concentrating more on progression than with patience for the aesthetic. However, the album then softens with Sun Ra playing more pointed, complex lines that transition the mood from a hard-hitting, drunk Duke Ellington into a less-swingy, attention-deficit Thelonious Monk. There are few recurring melodic themes throughout the album, but plenty of stylistic shifts that teeter between the effortlessly gorgeous and the complicated flurry, similar to a later-years John Fahey record. You get the feeling that this is the type of music that George Jetson would listen to when he has his mid-life crisis, eats some trippy mushrooms, and decides to go to a dive jazz bar in the slummy part of Orbit City to see a show. There is no fancy computer-driven music here, just a senile old guy who likes his piano just fine and who can still remember the days when space travel was a novel, exciting phenomenon.
It has been 41 years since the release of Monorails and Satellites, and we are still fixated to our televisions when astronauts have problems returning home from a routine space station mission. Our world has changed a great deal (but not really), and unfortunately, the future appears increasingly more grim than hopeful. Maybe that’s why Sun Ra’s legacy has stuck around so long (his Arkestra continues to outlive him) -- listening to his abstract-to-the-point-of-playful compositions foretell of a simpler, if not zany, life ahead.