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Sun Ra: Eventually I will succeed. It has taken this long for the vast mass of Ra archive recordings to be approached with the focus, quality and knowledge suitable for one of the most important musical innovators of the last century. Anderson and writer, music historian and DJ Irwin Chusid, the Mastered for iTunes project got under way in May to mark what would have been Sun Ra’s one hundredth birthday with a staggeringly colossal undertaking which affords his immense legacy its rightful place in the digital age. The pair have set up the Enterplanetary Koncepts label to release bit transfers from the original analog tapes which Anderson has been archiving since he played drums with the Arkestra and was appointed tape librarian by Ra in the late ’70’s.
Sun Ra: Eventually I will succeed. It has taken this long for the vast mass of Ra archive recordings to be approached with the focus, quality and knowledge suitable for one of the most important musical innovators of the last century. Anderson and writer, music historian and DJ Irwin Chusid, the Mastered for iTunes project got under way in May to mark what would have been Sun Ra’s one hundredth birthday with a staggeringly colossal undertaking which affords his immense legacy its rightful place in the digital age.
The pair have set up the Enterplanetary Koncepts label to release bit transfers from the original analog tapes which Anderson has been archiving since he played drums with the Arkestra and was appointed tape librarian by Ra in the late ’70’s.
In a recent interview at Sun Ra Arkive , Chusid explained how Anderson was contacted in January by an iTunes editor who happened to be a Sun Ra fan dissatisfied by the number of albums available which seemed to be of “dubious legitimacy and sub-par sound. He wanted to find the best quality available recordings, heard about Michael’s tape archive, and dropped him a note. I was really a novice about Sun Ra; a casual listener only, not an authority. But I’m friends with Michael and an iTunes direct content provider, so he asked me to administer the process.
I had a four month crash course in Sun Ra. Listened to everything, read everything, sought out the opinions of those who had been exploring Sun Ra for decades. I absorbed it all. The original tapes have been restored and corrected, enough dirt and glitches removed to boost sound quality but keeping the funk and soul intact, tracks reinstated to full length with some in stereo for the first time. Some of these sessions used only two mics for a large ensemble. There are room noises, and the sound of musicians bumping into things.
You’ve heard of Garage Rock? This is Garage Jazz. These session tapes contain many alternate, unreleased versions and an abundance of never-released material. Sun Ra has never sounded more vibrant or natural, the quality sometimes enough to place the listener in the middle of a full-bore Arkestral space chord or floating in the eerie tranquility of deep space. For perhaps befuddled newcomers, the Archive has compiled then thematic collections under titles such as ‘Outer Space,’ ‘Hard Bop’ and ‘Exotica’ to make up a helpful Explore the Cosmos series.
There’s sweet melodies you could play at cocktail hour, and abrasive noise-art that could clear a concert hall – and based on accounts in John Szwed’s Sun Ra bio , did on occasion drive audiences out the door. Sun Ra covers Gershwin with panache, then aggressively assaults his keyboard. Chusid continues: He has the one quality you can’t fake: He didn’t blaze a path for other musicians, because no one could replicate his intuitive gifts, his eccentricities, his style.
And despite my joking that in Sun Ra’s music ‘there’s something for everyone to hate,’ there is so much for anyone to love. He was a true musical ambassador, appealing to highbrow and lowbrow; to scholars, critics, and casual listeners; to jazz fans and rockers. His audience was limited because he was marginalized during his lifetime.
Many people couldn’t get a grasp on the monumental nature of his achievements. They didn’t know what category he belonged in. He was dismissed as a charlatan by some. But anyone who takes the time to explore this enormous body of music will be rewarded and impressed. His brain-twisting discography encompasses nearly a thousand titles with hundreds of musicians in countless configurations spanning six decades, while albums on his El Saturn label could be released with different titles, mixing up tracks from different periods with random names.
Considerable amounts of Ra’s music have become available since the early ’90’s but, even with the iceberg systematically emerging from under its tip, Ra’s catalogue but could still look like an impossible mountain too high to even dare the foothills.
Unbelievably excited by the iTunes remastering, I’m going to try and list the key releases throughout his life and beyond as both beginners guide and entertaining roundup for more weathered space travelers. My first thing for PSF, scribbled by a scrambled frantic fan as something he would like to read and hopefully others will too. Seat-belts in place, it’s time to explore the strange, wonderful omniverse of the man born into this world a hundred years ago as Herman Blount.
The box documents his sessions from these early sessions as pianist and in demand arranger, through maiden voyages as bandleader and finally Arkestral space captain unleashing outer limits keyboard explorations. Deep Purple Saturn , Evidence The earliest known Sun Ra recording, later released under his own name, was captured on July 29, at his flat on his Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder as he jammed on hit “Deep Purple” with jazz violinist Stuff Smith.
Sounding like an ancient transmission, the song shimmers with arcane crackle as Smith’s creaking violin dances with Ra’s eerie Hammond Solovox, a primitive electronic instrument he’d acquired in The Singles Evidence By , Ra had started assembling a band, a major recruitment coming early that year in the form of John Gilmore, a relentlessly-practicing tenor sax perfectionist who’d jammed with Charlie Parker, worked with Earl Hines and became one of Ra’s most loyal stalwarts until his Gilmore’s death in , known to influence Coltrane with his keening emotional power.
Ra and right hand man Alton Abraham started El Saturn in as an outlet for the musical torrent swelling as the decade progressed. Abraham struck a deal with RCA for small quantities of records to be pressed [from 20 to copies each].
They hand-delivered them to stores, sent mail order or sold at shows. It was one of the first musician-owned record companies, until Saturn released 71 Sun Ra albums, one by Pat Patrick and 26 singles, practically all roped together over two CD’s in this fascinatingly diverse compilation starting from the first Sun Ra recording session in February at RCA Studios.
Sound Sun Pleasure!! Although the 25 minute album was paired with Deep Purple on its reissue, it now stands alone and more effective in the remastering as one of Ra’s most traditional outings, placing four standards including Monk’s “Round Midnight” and “Back In Your Backyard” sung by Hattie Randolph alongside two tracks composed by Ra and trumpeter Hobart Dotson.
The presence of Gilmore and baritone saxist Pat Patrick bring the beef. Recorded at Chicago’s Universal Studios on July 12, , the album traversed modern and avant jazz, stacked with racy, snapping virtuoso surges such as “Brainville” and “Street Called Hell” while “Sun Song” is the most obvious future pointer to the exotic, Ra playing thick Wurlitzer chords over tribal pulse.
Super Sonic Jazz Saturn ; Impulse ; Mastered for iTunes Rather than being conceiving as a whole album, Super Sonic Jazz comprised tracks recorded over various sessions in Autumn including some released as singles but was released the following March as Saturn’s first album and a maiden long-playing voyage for the Arkestra name.
Although nodding at current musical styles such as bebop and Latin, there was already a startlingly new and panoramic vision at play in these joyful first forays. Sound of Joy Delmark ; Delmark CD A November studio session produced tracks which might have appeared on a second Transition set but waited until to become many people’s first wider-available taste of Sun Ra.
These include “Planet Earth”‘s multi-layered fanfare, “Eve”‘s widescreen tugboat piano cruise, mystical slo-mo chug of “Ankh” and “Overtones Of China” stir-frying another Oriental tone painting.
Welcome aboard Marshall Allen while bassist Ronnie Boykins was also asserting himself as one of the early Arkestra’s most invaluable assets, his bow work adding an eerie dimension for the next decade.
Some tracks were paired with early 60s rehearsals recordings to provide side B of Saturn album Visits Planet Earth which has been blessed with the stand alone Mastered for iTunes treatment. We Travel The Spaceways Saturn ; Mastered for iTunes Another Chicago session collection, spanning three sessions from between but not even scraping 25 minutes. Illustrating the increasingly haphazard release schedules, all the seven tracks appear on other albums in different versions, becoming firm faves in the Ra repertoire including the title track and “Interplanetary Music”.
It also features a personal fave in the desolately weightless space sheets of “Space Loneliness” which appears in a slower version on Interstellar Low Ways. Jazz In Silhouette Saturn, ; Impulse ; Evidence ; Mastered for iTunes Recorded on March 6, , Ra’s later acclaimed early masterpiece is a magnificent big band mutant with hints of things to come, boasting the Arkestra’s richest sound yet.
This single day’s creative star-burst was startling in its range, most credited to Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra, later seemingly released at random. Side one of Angels And Demons At Play came out of these sessions [while side B’s hard bop outings, three already released as singles, dated back to ‘s first session].
The outings strip down to African-influenced grooves [with shades of exotica pioneer Les Baxter], woodblock percussion and woodwind sometimes shaping the Arkestral style into skeletal proto-dub, while the experimental “Music From The World Tomorrow” provides the most startling but prescient step into the musical unknown.
Fate In A Pleasant Mood Saturn ; Evidence ; Mastered for iTunes This album was also recorded at Hall that day in but not released until , this time straddling cool urban jazz, bebop, intergalactic love suites, a sprightlier “Ankh,” Gilmore’s clarinet-draped “Lights Of A Satellite” also here in its unreleased 45 version on the digital remaster and sublimely understated title track written for trumpeter Phil Cohran [a key figure bringing African music into jazz].
Interstellar Low Ways Saturn ; Evidence ; Mastered for iTunes Originally titled Rocket Number Nine when released on Saturn in before being reissued retitled three years later, this album was one of Ra’s earliest concerted efforts to push jazz into the space age, although the music was still loaded with bebop and swing.
They then descended on New York City, with Ra planning to play some gigs, maybe record, then return home. When their car was disabled in a crash, effectively stranding them, Ra called producer Tom Wilson, who found them accommodation then arranged a session at Newark’s Medallion Studios on October 10 which resulted in landmark album The Futuristic Sounds Of Sun Ra.
The sound veered between a new style of primitively skeletal space jazz and super-sonic modern jazz. With bad distribution and not a shred of press, the album tanked. Bad And The Beautiful Saturn ; Evidence ; Mastered for iTunes The Arkestra initially found work hard to come by in New York City, finding themselves too out there even for a city in the throes of a counter-cultural revolution.
They struggled to find places to rehearse, let alone play but Chicago drummer Tommy ‘Bugs’ Hunter, who Ra had met when both were in Lil Green’s band in the late s and had relocated to New York in , climbed on board and found the Arkestra a free rehearsal spot in the basement of the Choreographer’s Workshop at West 51st Street, where they practiced relentlessly at nights and on weekends for the next three years.
Bugs recorded many of the rehearsals on the Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder he had bought in a pawn shop, rejoining his homeboys through to Ra’s last recording session nearly 30 years later. The first album Ra sent back to Abraham in Chicago was this relatively traditional set of four Ra originals and three jazz standards, recorded late in the Choreographers Workshop basement on West 51st Street, which would be the Arkestra’s rehearsal space for the next three years.
It would not be released by Saturn until In his notes to the reissue which noticeably boosts the sound quality and adds a Pat Patrick showcase “Street Of Dreams” , Chusid describes the album as “a resume,” which “lays out what what Sunny had learned as a pianist, composer, earlier growing up in Birmingham.
The album seems to say: This is who we are, this is what we did, we hope you like it, but don’t expect us to continue in this fashion. Bugs discovered that if he recorded with headphones on and messed with the jack sockets, he could create a cavernous, dub-presaging reverb effect. He feared Ra would be angry at this unexpected wild turn, but the boss loved it [“It blew his mind!
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Greg Pratt-dance. Needs issuing now! Here’s what John Gilmore has to say: For a period of time, we would go to different towns and Ra would write something special for the town. Like Silver Spring, Maryland.
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