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.

SUN RA’S LOST DECADE
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.

THE ROSE HUE MANSIONS OF THE SUN
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.

UNTITLED 2
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.

RETROSPECT/THIS WORLD IS NOT MY HOME
UNIDENTIFIED BLUES
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?

ANY DISCOGRAPHY INSIGHTS, CLARIFICATIONS, REVELATIONS, ETC. ARE WELCOME.

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

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