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.

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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.

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