LOST TONES: The Unheard Sun Ra, Part Two

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.

Before the great bandleader, composer, and pianist Sun Ra returned to his home planet of Saturn, he left behind a sprawling amount of music here on earth. He led the Arkestra, his big band, for almost 40 years and released over a hundred records, most on his own Saturn label. Many jazz fans are familiar with his work from the 1950s and 1960s. In recent years, intrepid labels like Art Yard have excavated and reissued his albums from the 1970s, proving that decade was a golden age for his music as well.

But 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!

Check out Part One of the series for our initial selection of these rarities. Below we’ve got some choice cuts from three more hideously scarce releases.

Sun Ra
Voice of the Eternal Tomorrow
Saturn : 1980

Sun Ra, organ, synthesizer; John Gilmore, tenor sax; Marshall Allen, alto sax,oboe; Danny Ray Thompson, baritone sax; Noel Scott, baritone sax, alto sax; Kenny Williams, tenor sax, baritone sax; Michael Ray, trumpet; Walter Miller, trumpet; Ronnie Brown, trumpet; Craig Harris, trombone; Tony Bethel, trombone; Vincent Chancey, french horn; Eloe Omoe, bass clarinet;  James Jacson, bassoon; Harry Wilson, vibes; Damon Choice, vibes; Steve Clarke, electric bass; Hayes Burnett or Richard “Radu” Williams, bass; Luqman Ali, drums; Samurai Celestial [Eric Walker], drums.

From 1979-82, Sun Ra and his band appeared regularly at the legendary Squat Theater in NYC. During 1980, they played there an average of once a week! A number of these shows were taped and released by Saturn in small quantities, but there are likely more albums from this fertile period that have yet to be discovered.

Voice of the Eternal Tomorrow (sometimes known as The Rose Hue Mansions of the Sun) was recorded in September 17, 1980 with what appears to be an especially potent lineup of the Arkestra. The 21-minute “Rose Hue Mansions” starts out as an epic blowout on the scale of previous landmarks such as “The Magic City” and “Atlantis.” A few minutes in, Sun Ra unleashes a shrieking keyboard squall that stirs up the rest of the band as if it were a hornet’s nest. Later, the composition downshifts into a delicate scrim of electronic ambiance. As always with Ra, expect the unexpected.

Sun Ra
Hidden Fire 2
Saturn : 1988

Sun Ra, organ, synthesizer, vocals; John Gilmore, tenor sax; Marshall Allen, alto sax; Danny Ray Thompson, baritone sax; Kenny Williams, baritone sax;  Eloe Omoe, alto sax, bass clarinet, contra-alto clarinet; Michael Ray, trumpet; Ahmed Abdullah, trumpet; Tyrone Hill, trombone; James Jacson, bassoon, Ancient Egyptian Infinity Drum; Billy Bang, violin; Owen Brown, Jr., violin; June Tyson, violin, vocals; Art Jenkins, vocals, including space voice; John Ore, bass; Luqman Ali, drums; Buster Smith, drums; Pharaoh Abdullah, percussion.

We’ve heard lots of Sun Ra over the years, but this track threw us for a serious loop. The extremely ’80s keyboard textures initially evokes Vangelis. The piece’s stuttering intervals almost recall “My Favorite Things” but never resolve in that direction. Then Art Jenkins begins scatting in what the credits demurely refer to as his “space voice.” The results kind of sound like Biz Markie crooning over a fractured version of the theme to Miami Vice. Or better yet, the great Shooby Taylor goes free jazz. Most of the audience seems too stunned to applaud. You will be amazed.

The various Hidden Fire albums were recorded live during the Arkestra’s January 1988 concerts at the Knitting Factory, in its original Houston Street location in NYC. These were the last Saturn releases to feature new material – and they remain the most confusing entries in Sun Ra’s entire oeuvre.

The albums did not include any track titles and were initially released without labels. Some labeled copies are given the wrong volume numbers and to top things off, various copies were sold with completely misleading titles! These seem specifically designed to give discographers headaches, as you’ll see below.

Sun Ra
Hidden Fire 3/4
Saturn : 1988

Sun Ra, organ, synthesizer, vocals; John Gilmore, tenor sax; Marshall Allen, alto sax; Danny Ray Thompson, baritone sax; Kenny Williams, baritone sax;  Eloe Omoe, alto sax, bass clarinet, contra-alto clarinet; Michael Ray, trumpet; Ahmed Abdullah, trumpet; Tyrone Hill, trombone; James Jacson, bassoon, Ancient Egyptian Infinity Drum; Billy Bang, violin; Owen Brown, Jr., violin; June Tyson, violin, vocals; Art Jenkins, vocals, including space voice; John Ore, bass; Luqman Ali, drums; Buster Smith, drums; Pharaoh Abdullah, percussion.

The first track here is a wonderfully mysterioso piece that showcases Sun Ra’s unparalleled ability to draw upon the classic big band tradition while tweaking it to his own cosmic requirements. The casually adventurous arrangement includes swirling strings, oblique horn interjections, a hypnotically sighing groove, and Art Jenkins’ subdued exhortations.

For those who like their Ra rawer, the “Unidentified Blues” track is a knotty concoction of stumbling rhythms and spidery keyboard salvos. The highlights include a searing violin solo and a series of distressed saxophone cries. The discography lists Billy Bang as part of these concerts (and it certainly sounds like him!), but trustworthy firsthand observers are positive that he wasn’t in attendance.

The discography also indicates Hidden Fire 3/4 is exactly the same as Hidden Fire 1, though it also insists that the album only contains three tracks. George Scala’s copy includes four distinct cuts. The album’s first track does seem to be “Retrospect/The World Is Not My Home” though this version of the track seems to cut out early. All to say: Just enjoy the music, okay?


And let us us know what you think of these tracks in the comments…

Discussion16 Comments Category Lost Tones, Sun Ra Tags , , , , , , , ,

16 Responses to LOST TONES: The Unheard Sun Ra, Part Two

  1. i recorded quite a few Ra shows on cassette in the 1980s, in baltimore and california.
    i am now reducing my possessions and am in search of someone to take my cassettes from me (and either keep them or transfer them to digital, or maybe just throw them away). There may be someone out there who values these documents and i hope to connect with that person. I made notes of much venue and date info, plus personnel and song titles. if you know someone who wants to pursue this further, put them in touch. (the rest of my cassette archive of concert recordings covers well-known names from 1980s jazz and avant scenes….also available to interested parties.)

  2. @G C: Mr Scala will be reaching out to you via email… Thanks.

  3. GC
    I would be most interested in transferring your tapes and archiving them. I have much experience in this area and place a high historic value in archives such as yours. It would be a shame for these to disappear into some private collection or discarded. Send me an email at carville1@gmail.com. I know a lot of people who would love to hear them.

  4. Thank you for the excellent post. This blog gets high marks for pairing a few select album tracks with insightful, intelligent, penetrating notes. All of your posts are well written and I almost always learn something new about artists I though I knew very well. I also appreciate that you only let loose one or two selected tracks to highlight an LP, rather than offering a complete download of a reviewed album. Too many blogs consist of little more than a download of an entire album in the form of cruddy sounding MP3s, and the blogger’s minimal (if any) comments usually lack any insight and just offer. I find this kind sloppy blogging does a disservice both to the artists as well as dedicated fans.

    Thanks also for featuring two of my most favorite Sun Ra albums, the two “Hidden Fire” records. I have both of these albums. On the two I own, each has (different) printed labels and comes in (different) “psychedelic-swirl-prism” “stock” 12″ cardboard sleeves. On both LPs, side-a consists of a single track, while side-b has two tracks. There are no song titles printed.

    (1) a-side: orange printed label, “volume 1″ , b-side, yellow printed label, “volume 2.” Matrix# 13088 A/12988 B. This one appears to be most similar w/ the album listed as “Hidden Fire 2″ in the blog post.

    (2) a-side: orange printed label, “VOLUME 3,” b-side, orange printed label, “volume 4.” Matrix# 1-31-88 III/1-29-88 II. This one appears to be most similar w/ the album listed as “Hidden Fire 3/4″ in the blog post.

    I have a question about the tune you listed as “Unidentified Blues,” 9:20 long. I’ve seen this song also listed as “Unidentified Improvisation.” My copy has on side-a, a single 15:09 track, and side-b has the 9:20 tune you list as well as a 12:21 long track that seems a lot more like a
    “blues” to me. I think you may have posted the shorter “Unidentified Improvisation” and left out the 12:21 “Unidentified Blues.” Or are our copies just very different?

  5. Re a discussion that was left hanging from Part One: what’s your reasoning behind releasing only tracks from otherwise unavailable LPs as opposed to the whole record on “crappy sounding,” according to DJM, MP3s? Does releasing the whole record devalue Scala’s collection somehow? Does it dis the Arkestra or the Sun Ra estate? Whose permission do you need to release a track? DJM’s point about bloggers releasing complete records and doing a disservice to the artists is about giving away music that is otherwise available for purchase. This is not the case here, as I understand it.

  6. Terry – We never share entire albums here on D:O. We want to encourage labels to re-release this music and in fact many titles we’ve previously featured have come back into print. Our goal is to let people know about great OOP music that they might’ve missed and give them a sample of it for a limited time. It’s a can of worms, but let’s leave it that when entire albums are available for download for an unlimited time, you almost never see them get reissued.

    We’re also highly selective with the tracks we pick, only choosing ones that we feel are the most interesting & worth your time. There’s so much music flooding the internet that it’s easy to lapse into collector mode, downloading entire albums and even discographies, and then not spending much time actually enjoying the music. Amassing music takes the place of listening to it. At least we’ve found that’s happened to us and our friends. So our solution to combating information overload is to offer less but hopefully have it mean more. We’re not opposed to sharing different tracks from the same album over time, btw. So if you like this stuff, let us know and we’ll see about sharing more cuts some months down the line.

    As for “crappy sounding,” these are the best sounding versions of this music that George has. The vinyl is extremely rare, old, and fragile. It’s been cleaned up and shared it at the highest bit rate possible.

  7. When I wrote:

    “Too many blogs consist of little more than a download of an entire album in the form of cruddy sounding MP3s…”

    I was not commenting on the quality of D:O’s MP3s, but on those posted on OTHER blogs and/or the poor sound quality of the medium in general. The MP3s here sound fine to me, as good as one can expect w/ old LPs and the limitations of the medium.

    Full/free downloads hurt artists weather or not the album in question is currently available or if it remains unreleased and long-out-of-print. In terms of whole album downloads of out-of-print LPs hurting the artists, it’s a simple matter of supply/demand. If people already have a complete unreleased LP on MP3, the demand for that album will drop (some people will refrain from buying the official release if they already have an illicit download), making it less likely that it will see an official release, meaning less sales and fewer royalties going to the artists/copyright holders.

    I love what D:O is doing- it sheds light on unheralded artists/albums, has insightful criticism and gives you a flavor for what the album sounds like. if you like what you hear you can seek out a second hand copy of the LP or lobby the artists/labels/copyright holders to re-issue the LP in a legal format. Keep up the good work.

  8. Thanks for the thoughtful remarks and kind words, DJ M! Much appreciated.
    And I sorry I misread the comment about ‘cruddy sounding MP3s’!

  9. All I can say about “The Rose Hue Mansions of the Sun” is OMG! I’m a big fan of Sun Ra, but this is totally amazing.

  10. D-O: Never mind the fact, as you point out, that there’s already too much music available, and what you’re doing is trying to make even more music available. There’s too much of everything available, and too little time to process anything. What’s interesting is you seem to be operating in a sort of idealist vacuum. You’re aware of course of sites like Adventure-Equation. The elephant in the room, no?

    In the case of Rose Hue Mansions of the Sun, it’s completely fabulous, and having one side of the record, it would certainly be nice to have the other side of the record. But I’m a listener, not a collector. I don’t need the other side of the record, and I don’t need to own or even hear everything Ra ever recorded. As you say, there’s already too much music available.

  11. hey Terry – You’re right about too little time to process anything. Simon Reynolds has written some interesting pieces (most recently in The Wire) about what we’ve lost with the advent of internet culture. You’re also dead on that we’re navigating a fine line on the site (and we’re definitely aware of other ventures), but ethically it’s where we feel comfortable and that stance has been rewarded by both jazz labels and prominent jazz musicians wanting to actively participate in the site. That’s something you won’t see elsewhere and something we really value. Glad you’ve been enjoying ‘Rose Hue Mansions’!

  12. awesome sounds…saw the Arkestra a couple times in the eighties. early (Bay area) and late(seattle)
    sun ra ending a set on acoustic piano “somewhere over the rainbow” this brings back some great memories . free jazz,free ….keep the sound free!!!

  13. well damn, somebody please reissue this stuff! i want to hear the entire albums…

  14. thank you! i am a late-comer to ra, so look forward reading the info and having a great listen.

  15. I saw recently some poems of Sun Ra newly duplicated and being sold for profit. Is this legal? Who owns the rights to Sun Ra’s estate and intellectual property?

  16. Hey Natasha, I have bought a few of those books recently and had trouble sorting them out. I think all of them are obtaining rights from the Sun Ra Archive

    The best one that I’ve encountered is called ‘Sun Ra: The Immeasurable Equation’. It is a complete set of his poetry/spoken word works, extracted from live performances, writings, recordings, etc.

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