The three Sun Ra records that came out on Soul Note between 1987-92 are not easy to summarize, but, since that’s what we are here for, we can start by admitting that they are a mixed bag. The stylistic tendency is towards the inside-but-not-straight side of the Arkestra’s repertoire, from swing to blues to groove to lounge exotica, but not often toward the cosmic chaos of the Heliocentric Worlds. Reflections in Blue and Hours After were recorded over a two-day period in late 1986 and feature great Arkestra stalwarts John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick and several other long-term members, as well as later additions like guitarist Carl LeBlanc. The lineup had changed considerably by the time Mayan Temples was recorded in 1990, starting with the fact that Patrick was no longer on board. Though they date from the same sessions, Reflections in Blue has never seemed as successful as Hours After to this listener. Both benefit from quirky solos by Gilmore, Allen, the leader and others and suffer from a certain, hard-to-trace clutter in the rhythm section (owing possibly to the presence of two drummers, or perhaps simply to the way things were recorded). But Ra leans heavily on an annoying keyboard sound that adds to this feeling of extraneous noise much more on the first record than the second and the Hours After program is stronger, not least because it includes one real free-for-all, “Dance of the Extra Terrestrians”, which is probably the strongest track in the entire set. Here we have Gilmore, Allen, Patrick and the other veterans blowing with as much passion as they had a generation earlier, but in a setting that sounds very different, not least because of the way Ra is directing traffic. Mayan Temples manages a stylistic coherence that both seems unique to this one record and a continuation of things Ra had been doing since the ‘50s. By contrast, one feels in listening to Reflections in Blue that it is merely a collection of stylistically similar tunes that don’t work as well on their own as they would in the context of a live show. Mayan Temples kicks off with “Dance Of The Language Barrier”, a twisty, boppish line that benefits from solid soloing from Ra and Gilmore. Another unfamiliar original, “Discipline No.1”, is perhaps more typical of the overall feel, relying on bent chords voiced by the horns. The mood is at once somber and playful somehow and the closer one listens, the more mysterious it all becomes. We also get versions of standards we don’t associate with the Arkestra, like the remarkably successful “Alone Together”, a great reworking of “El Is The Sound Of Joy” and one killer free track, “Prelude To Stargazers”. Overall, this is one of the standout recordings of Ra’s later years and among the last really to feature his piano playing. Mayan Temples was originally a CD, not an LP, so the total time is about twice that of the other titles, something prospective buyers might want to know. Very early in his career, Ra is supposed to have recorded with Swing fiddle master Stuff Smith and he did issue an informal recording made with Smith in the early ‘50s long after the fact. It therefore seems fitting that his appearance as sideman on Billy Bang’s A Tribute to Stuff Smith in 1992 was among his last on record. Ra consistently finds oblique ways to accompany Bang’s excursions, playing something weird when you expect something straight and viceversa. Drummer Andrew Cyrille seems to want to react and overreact to everything while bassist John Ore just walks along beautifully, as if he doesn’t notice the chaos around him. Bang is aggressive but doesn’t really push out as much as one might expect (except in terms of intonation, from time to time). Somehow, it all seems to strike the right chord; one of jazz’ great mavericks, saluted by two later kindred spirits. Particularly enjoyable are the two tunes actually written by Smith, “Bugle Blues” and “Only Time Will Tell”. He was an excellent composer but his tunes have, unfortunately, languished for the most part. Overall, this is a desirable but not essential set for those who already have a good selection of the classic Ra recordings of the ‘60s and ’70s.