LOST TONES: The Unheard Sun Ra, Part One

 

Welcome to LOST TONES, a series featuring tracks from hyper-rare recordings that aren’t available anywhere else on the web. These treasures are courtesy of George Scala, who runs the invaluable Free Jazz Research site. He’s generously shared them from his amazing archive so they can be enjoyed by more than just collectors. Scroll down for the tunes.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SUN RA
May 22d would’ve been the 97th birthday of the great bandleader, composer, and pianist Sun Ra. Before he returned to his home planet of Saturn, Sun Ra left behind a sprawling amount of music here on earth. He led the Arkestra, his big band, for almost 40 years and self-produced and released over a hundred records, most on his own Saturn label. We humans are still playing catch up.

Most jazz fans are primarily familiar with Sun Ra’s big band work from the 1950s and 1960s. In recent years, intrepid labels like Art Yard have been excavating and reissuing many of his rare albums from the 1970s, proving that decade was a veritable golden age for his music as well.

One one period still remains largely unmapped and under-appreciated: The 1980s. Based on readily available recordings, this decade has been regarded as Ra’s twilight years where he re-embraced his traditional big band roots. But that’s misleading because many of Sun Ra’s finest albums from this period were released in runs as small as 50 copies, sold only at shows, and packaged without artwork. In some some cases, even the labels were handwritten! Like the following release…

 

 

 

INTENSITY
OMNISONICISM
Sun Ra
Dance of Innocent Passion
Saturn : 1981

Sun Ra, organ, synthesizer; John Gilmore, tenor sax; Marshall Allen, alto sax, flute, oboe, percussion; Michael Ray, trumpet; Walter Miller, trumpet; Ronnie Brown, trumpet; Vincent Chancey, french horn; Ray Draper, tuba; Danny Ray Thompson, baritone sax, flute, percussion; James Jacson, bassoon, flute; Skeeter McFarland, electric guitar; Taylor Richardson, electric guitar; Harry Wilson, vibes; Damon Choice, vibes; Richard “Radu” Williams, bass; Luqman Ali, drums; Samurai Celestial [Eric Walker], drums; Atakatune, congas, percussion.

This album is rarer than hen’s teeth, but “Intensity” is one of Sun Ra’s most accessible and immediately engaging tunes.  It’s a joyful shuffle, brimming with Latin percussion, single note guitar lines, soaring brass solos, and comping organ. It’s evocative of Santana circa 1974’s live Lotus - though done in Ra’s own style. Note the tuba solo by Ray Draper, best known for his work with John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Jackie McLean in the ’50s and ’60s.

For real intensity, see the spooky “Omnisonicism.” It opens with whooshing sound effects, like a combination of a vintage horror and sci-fi soundtrack. However this unusual tune builds into a ferocious proto-industrial noise behemoth, as abrasive as anything by Throbbing Gristle.  It features some of Ra’s most inventive synth playing. Good music for throwing a scare into pesky neighbors.

Dance of Innocent Passion was recorded live in 1980 at the legendary Squat Theater in New York. An amazing time for the NYC club-goer, the Squat in 1980 featured gigs from Defunct, DNA, James Chance, Philip Wilson, Material, the Lounge Lizards, Nico, Frank Lowe, and saw the debut of Kid Creole and the Coconuts.

From 1979-82, Sun Ra and his band appeared regularly at the Squat. During 1980, they played there an average of once a week! A number of these shows were taped and released by Saturn, but there are likely more that have yet to be discovered. This album is just a peek into Ra’s fertile Squat Theater period. More in our second installment.

OMNISCIENCE
QUIET ECSTASY
Sun Ra
Aurora Borealis
Saturn : 1981

Sun Ra, piano.

Aurora Borealis (sometimes known as Ra Rachmaninoff) is one of Ra’s few solo albums. It’s also one of his very best, and might even surpass such exceptional efforts as Solo and St. Louis Blues. “Omniscience” finds Ra attempting to download his pianistic vocabulary into a single 9-minute track. It’s a bravura effort, spanning divergent moods and techniques – hushed tones, crashing dissonance, hyper-aggressive runs, delicate flourishes, and humming textures. A Sun Ra sampler, if you will.

One of the most achingly beautiful tunes in the entire Ra catalog, “Quiet Ecstasy” is just what it’s title says. Too many words would spoil the effect, so let’s just say it’s lyrical without being sentimental and note that Ra’s use of space is worthy of Eric Satie.

SUN RA IN THE ’80s, PART TWO:
Next month we’ll survey more ear-opening Sun Ra from this overlooked period, including an epic blowout worthy of “Atlantis” or “The Magic City,” tunes with Billy Bang, and more.

* * *

NEXT WEEK:
The first of a two part feature dedicated to the music of George Lewis, including a new interview with exclusive details about his classic Homage to Charles Parker album and his latest release with Muhal Richard Abrams.

Discussion17 Comments Category Lost Tones, Sun Ra Tags , , , , , , ,

17 Responses to LOST TONES: The Unheard Sun Ra, Part One

  1. Wow, quite a birthday present indeed. Thanks very much to all who were involved in making this available to hear.

  2. Listening to this for inspiration while I work… wow wee! thanks!

  3. I must also add my thanks for this blog post

    I’d add “Hidden Fire 1″ & “Hidden Fire 2″ as some of Ra’s best work in the ’80s.

    http://homepage.uab.edu/moudry/disc_d.htm#116.
    http://homepage.uab.edu/moudry/disc_d.htm#117.

    In fact, these are two of my favorite Sun Ra albums of any era. They are two of the most outside albums he ever made. None of the more inside moves that Ra made towards the end of his career are evident. Just total free-form blasting. They are particularly notable for Art Jenkins’ “space voice,” the most intense vocalizations I’ve ever heard.

    These two albums are the prize of my collection. I was able to scoop them up in the late ’90s from a member of the band Hat City Intuitive. They also come in unique 12″ sleeves, unlike any other Ra albums I’m aware of:

    http://collectorsfrenzy.com/Details.aspx?id=250761503442
    http://collectorsfrenzy.com/Details.aspx?id=250761501399

  4. Great as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. Is there some reason not to make all of Sun Ra’s “rarer than hen’s teeth” LPs, which presumably will never be released as CDs, available online, free, as MP3s? Is George Scala or someone working on this, perhaps?

  5. Thank you very much for helping keep this music alive!
    KFJC (89.7FM) in Los Altos Hills, CA dedicated the entire Sunday to Sun Ra.
    I’ve never heard such an awesome broadcast, all commercial free.
    I’ll look forward to learning and listening more in the future on this site.

  6. Nice selection! I’m trying to figure out what the “epic blowout worthy of ‘Atlantis’ or ‘The Magic City'” will be….”Fireside chat with Lucifer”? “Rose hue mansions of the sun”? (Hopefully you’ll include something from “Voice of the Eternal Tomorrow,” another great Squat album.) “Ra to the Rescue” has some great high-intensity Gilmore. If you’re going for true rarity, you can’t go wrong with the two unique live tracks from the LP “Just Friends.” Thanks for exposing this underrated period of Ra’s work.

  7. I wonder why my comment, posted May 23rd, 2011 at 9:39 pm, is still “awaiting moderation,” when three subsequent posted have been moderated? Could it be that I (inadvertently) happened to mention the subject(s) of part two of this Sun Ra feature? The album(s) I tried to comment on (hint – “HF”) could be described as “epic blowout[s],” and also contain “tunes with Billy Bang.” As far as I can tell, there’s nothing otherwise offensive in my proposed comment. Perplexing.

  8. Hey, DJ M. Thanks for the comment(s). The explanation re the earlier comment is simple human error. Hadn’t realized there was something awaiting moderation! (The number of links in the comment triggered the moderation process, and we were just slow on the uptake.)

  9. ledrew, thank you for the explanation. I guess as I grow older I’m getting more paranoid and let my mind wander towards conspiracy theories. Thanks again for your outstanding blog.

  10. do these recordings comprise the entirety of their respective releases? and if not, can we get the rest of what was on them? i don’t think there would be any copyright concerns with 50-copy-only homemade records ‘released’ on a decades-defunct vanity label…

  11. regarding terry katleman’s post, “Is there some reason not to make all of Sun Ra’s “rarer than hen’s teeth” LPs, which presumably will never be released as CDs, available online, free, as MP3s?” and jakob’s post “i don’t think there would be any copyright concerns with 50-copy-only homemade records ‘released’ on a decades-defunct vanity label…”

    Well that’s a pretty easy way of looking at it, if you want the music. But (legal details aside) if the label is defunct, and you’re assuming that the catalog is not owned by anyone, shouldn’t the copyright revert to the artist, especially when we are talking something issued as recently as 30 years ago. Sun Ra may have returned in other form to his planet of origin, but the Arkestra didn’t. Some of the same musicians (Marshall Allen for example) are still in the band. Wouldn’t it be better to start a PAID digital label, with the proceeds going to the Arkestra??

    a 2005 article in the New York Times quoted Marshall as saying:
    “In all, the Arkestra has released more than 100 self-produced records, Mr. Allen said, as well as several albums on established labels. But the meager royalties go to Sun Ra’s family and former business partners, not the current band.

    “We get no royalties,” he said. “I got no money. I’m sitting on zero. If we had more bookings, the band would be stronger. Then we could rehearse steady and play numbers we ain’t never played. You got to have money to run a band. Bills have to be paid. I can’t even pay a musician’s carfare to get down here.”

  12. Thank you to fg for writing exactly what I was thinking.

    I would also add that the two comments fg references (terry katleman & jakob) also show a shocking amount of self-serving entitlement. “Kids” these days have no conception of how hard it was to track down rare outside/fee/avant-garde/creative jazz LPs in the pre-internet days. Simply finding out their existence was a feat in itself. Now, complete discographies of even the most obscure record labels are a few clicks and a google search away. Back then, it was all word of mouth, or scrounging for out-of-print copies of Downbeat or other jazz mags/fanzines. Valerie Wilmer’s excellent book “As Serious as Your Life” was another key source. Once you learned about a specific title, then you had to actually source a copy the old fashioned way- crate digging. I spent countless hours digging though thousands of mediocre/easy to find titles just to locate just one gem. Today, people just expect those of us w/ the “good stuff” to just post a crappy sounding MP3 for them to download onto their iTunes so they can say, “I’ve got that one!” No you don’t; someone worked hard to find the original LP, you just clicked on your mouse. I refuse to post any of my rare stuff onto MP-free blogs; you’re not going to get an easy ride off of my coat-tails. If you want it, you’ll have to work for it like we “old school” collectors had to- i.e. search for an original copy yourself, or wait until it sees an official re-release.

    Although my comments are rather curmudgeonly, the real argument was made by fg. Gratis downloads of complete albums hurt the artists/copyright holders. They deserve every penny they can get, and free loaders shouldn’t profit at their expense.

  13. By the way, May 25 was the 87th birthday of Marshall Allen. Curious to hear Mr Allen’s contribution as a sideman on a 2011 release, I recently bought Odean Pope’s new CD (‘Universal Sounds’) and was not disappointed.

  14. Re FG: “Wouldn’t it be better to start a PAID digital label, with the proceeds going to the Arkestra??” Actually it would be better if the NEA would not only fully cover the costs of distributing Sun Ra’s obscure LPs gratis but would also provide ongoing support of the Arkestra. But that’s a whole other federal jazz policy issue and it’ll never happen anyway. Short of that, who’s going to do this and how will the minuscule sales justify the costs of running a digital label? In the interests of distributing Sun Ra’s most obscure recordings to the tiny percentage of DJM’s “freeloading kids” who would be interested in this music, just putting it out there is . . . a gift, as in Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.

  15. in early 70s used to play ra to clear the house after a party-doesnt work now-they stick around for more

  16. Now that you’ve posted Part Two of this series, is there any chance the links from Part One will become available again?

  17. Norman & others who missed it the first time round – We’ve just made the links to The Unheard Sun Ra, Part One live again for a very limited time. Enjoy!

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