Sun Ra Singles: The Definitive Collection 1952-1991 STRUT148CD
Sun Ra Arkive Review by Christopher B Eddy:
At the time, 1993's Evidence 2 CD Sun Ra release of "The Singles" was a holy grail. Until then, most Arkestra fans had never been able to hear a majority of the collection - if any of it at all - and never before collected in good quality, in one place.
If Evidence's 49 track singles release was a holy grail, then the new 2016 Strut/Art Yard 3 CD 65 track collection "Sun Ra Singles: The Definitive Collection 1952-1991" raises the bar to Ark of The Covenant proportions, and exemplifies how much access to Sun Ra's music has improved in the 24 years since the previous release. Listeners can hear deep treasures at a level of sonic clarity that was previously only dreamed of by Ra-diophiles.
The care that is obviously put in to the packaging (Matt Thame), research (Quinton Scott/Peter Dennett), liner notes (Francis Gooding, track listing (Paul Griffiths), and transfer/restoration/mastering (Michael Anderson/Irwin Chusid/Peter Beckmann makes this an A+ gold star must-have release for any Sun Ra fan. I bought the CD version, and can only imagine that the 12 and 7 inch vinyl versions must be as beautiful and magical of an experience as the CD is, if not more so, due to the fetishistic attraction of the vinyl presentations.
In general the original singles collected here were pressed in extremely low indie manner and quantities - very few, to handfuls, to no (in some cases) copies exist. The various, less-than-Billboard-Top-40 recording locations, conditions and budgets equates to some challenging sonics on many of these sides, which makes the overall unity and level of quality achieved in the mastering of this collection a major achievement. As a whole, this is the best these recordings have sounded, and small details of performance and atmosphere previously obscured are revealed here.
Unlike previous digital era releases, the sound quality and light-handed, almost transparent, restoration is very detailed and musical, with minimal noise reduction artifacts and an airy sense of naturalness to the soundstage. The EQ is warm and true to the analog sources as can be hoped, making for an enjoyable and non-fatiguing listening experience, absent of overwhelming digital harshness.
It would be easy to assume that everything from the Evidence "The Singles" release has been ported over to Strut/Art Yard's 2016 "Sun Ra Singles: The Definitive Collection 1952-1991," but to take nothing away from this crucial new collection, is "definitive" is to mean "complete," it is not - eight songs from the Evidence CD are not on the new release. And while it collects many one-off single releases from the past 24 years that appeared on various labels, such as Norton Records, the only truly new unreleased single (as far as I can tell) is the 'A Blue One/Orbitration In Blue' 7." (which has never sounded better, compared to the copies circulating in collectors circles). So if you want everything, you still need both releases.
This is a list of the songs appearing on the Strut/Art Yard collection that weren't on Evidence, though most can be found on other albums and collections:
1. SUN RA – I AM AN INSTRUMENT
2. SUN RA – I AM STRANGE
3. SUN RA & THE NU SOUNDS – CHICAGO USA
4. SUN RA & THE NU SOUNDS – SPACESHIP LULLABY
7. BILLIE HAWKINS with SUN-RA & HIS ORCHESTRA – I’M COMING HOME
8. BILLIE HAWKINS with SUN-RA & HIS ORCHESTRA – LAST CALL FOR LOVE
9. SUN RA & HIS ARKISTRA – SOFT TALK
10. SUN RA & HIS ARKISTRA – SUPER BLONDE
12. LE SUN RA & HIS ARKISTRA – A CALL FOR DEMONS
13. LE SUN RA & HIS ARKISTRA – DEMON’S LULLABY
16. LE SUN RA & HIS ARKISTRA – URNACK
23. LE SUN RA & HIS ARKESTRA – HOURS AFTER
5. SUN RA & HIS ASTRO INFINITY ARKESTRA – ROUND MIDNIGHT
6. SUN RA & HIS ASTRO INFINITY ARKESTRA – BACK IN YOUR OWN BACK YARD
8. LE SUN RA AND HIS ARKESTRA – VELVET
12. SUN RA & HIS ARKESTRA – SPACE LONELINESS
16. SUN RA & HIS ARKESTRA featuring PAT PATRICK – A BLUE ONE
17. SUN RA & HIS ARKESTRA featuring PAT PATRICK – ORBITRATION IN BLUE
18. SUN RA & HIS ARKESTRA – OUT THERE A MINUTE
19. LITTLE MACK with SUN RA & HIS ARKESTRA – TELL HER TO COME ON HOME
5. SUN RA & HIS ASTRO-INTERGALACTIC INFINITY ARKESTRA – JOURNEY TO SATURN
12. SUN RA QUARTET– DISCO 3000
17. SUN RA ARKESTRA – NUCLEAR WAR
18. SUN RA ARKESTRA – SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY
19. SUN RA ARKESTRA – ON JUPITER / COSMO DRAMA
20. SUN RA ARKESTRA – COSMO DRAMA
21. SUN RA – I AM THE INSTRUMENT
Release details from Strut/Art Yard:
Strut present a new definitive collection of singles released by jazz maverick Sun Ra during his Earth years, spanning 1952 to 1991. Released prolifically during the 1950s and more sporadically thereafter, primarily on the Saturn label, the 45s offer one-off meteorites from Ra’s prolific cosmic journey, tracing the development of his forward-thinking “Space-Bop” and his unique take on jazz and blues traditions which sounded unlike anything else from the period. As with his LPs, most 45s were only pressed in small runs and were sold at gigs and have since become extremely rare and sought after. Some have only been discovered in physical form in recent years; some were planned and pencilled but allegedly never made it to vinyl and some appeared as one-off magazine singles and posthumous releases.
‘Singles’ will be released in various formats across two release dates. All formats feature fully remastered tracks, rare photos, poster artwork, extensive sleeve notes by Francis Gooding, an interview with Saturn Records founder Alton Abraham by John Corbett and detailed track by track and session notes by Paul Griffiths. The 45s box sets each feature a hardboard flip top box containing 10 x 45s in their original artwork along with a bound 28pp booklet.
November 25th 2016:
- All-encompassing 3CD and digital versions covering Ra’s full output from 1952-1991
- 3LP set Volume 1 covering 1952-1961
December 9th 2016 :
- 10 x 45 box set Volume 1 covering 1952-1961 (limited to 500 copies)
Volume 2 - Coming March - April 2017:
- 3LP set Volume 2 covering 1962-1991
- 10 x 45 box set Volume 2 covering 1962-1991 (limited to 500 copies)
This is the best review I've read on the internet to date:
How Sun Ra’s Definitive Singles Catalog Finally Saw The Light of Day
By Michael J. West
Sun Ra departed Earth on May 30, 1993, just days after the 79th anniversary of his arrival. (One doesn’t talk about Ra in terms of “birth” and “death,” but more on that later.) He left behind a massive, convoluted musical legacy—including at least 120 full-length albums, one of the world’s largest known discographies—and perhaps an even bigger mystery. Who was this jazz composer/arranger/bandleader/pianist, who insisted that he was a native of the planet Saturn and espoused a philosophy that blended science fiction, Biblical texts and ancient Egyptian history and mythology (wearing costumes that also expressed that combination)? And what were we to make of his music, which ranged from big-band swing to bebop to avant-garde and fusion?
Twenty-three years later, we have some answers. It’s only in that time, for example, that Sun Ra has been revealed to be the former Herman Poole “Sonny” Blount, born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914. A small army of researchers has made some sense of his discography as well, assigning session dates and personnel to previously un-annotated tracks. Many of the Sun Ra Arkestra’s albums were ex post facto compilations of disparate sessions and lineups. Still, there are a number of holes and gray areas, and perhaps always will be. But with Strut Records’ release of Singles: The Definitive 45s Collection—an assemblage of one of Ra’s most overlooked bodies of work—the picture becomes a bit more complete.
“It’s a very interesting and singular perspective on the Sun Ra story,” says Paul Griffiths, the London-based music writer who compiled Singles. “It will be a huge listening experience, and, I think, quite a revelation.”
We don’t often think about post-World War II jazz in the context of singles; almost as soon as long-playing records were introduced in 1948, jazz and its often lengthy improvisations proved uniquely suited to the format. The 45 rpm market, ideal for jukeboxes and radio stations, was reserved for pop songs. But Sun Ra was never interested in convention. With his idiosyncratic vision, he and his business manager Alton Abraham—with whom he founded his El Saturn Records label—wanted to share it with the world.
“Singles were popular at that time. Singles were how you got attention,” says Irwin Chusid, administrator of Sun Ra LLC (the arm of Sun Ra’s estate that controls his catalog). “And putting out albums was a lot more expensive than putting out singles. So I think it was the economics of the music at the time that necessitated dealing with seven-inch singles. Alton Abraham wanted to make money, to sell records, so what do you do? You put out singles!”
Marshall Allen, longtime alto saxophonist for the Sun Ra Arkestra (and its leader since 1993), agrees that the singles were probably a business decision rather than a creative one. Certainly the musicians were never told that they were specifically making record sides. “At any session, Sun Ra would have so many tunes for us to do, and we’d go into the studio and make whatever,” he says. “And then he and, maybe Alton, would decide what to do with it afterward. We’d find out about it when it came out, just like everybody else.”
Small independent labels weren’t a rare commodity in the 1950s and ‘60s; they came and went frequently. But like most of them, Saturn wasn’t really plugged into the major distribution channels. “They probably just took them around to the stores and said ‘Here, would you carry our records?’” says Chusid. “Maybe they sold them at gigs, or through the mail. But there was no wide distribution of the records, which is why these records are so rare.”
The rarity of the records allowed many of them to slip through the historical and musicological cracks. Indeed, this is not the first collection of Sun Ra’s releases on 45. Evidence Records, the last label to which Sun Ra signed in his lifetime, put out a compilation in 1996 among a bevy of Ra releases. But that release was flawed on many levels. For one thing, it contained 49 tracks to the new collection’s 63.
“The old Evidence CD had quite a few gaps in it,” says Griffiths. “[It didn’t include] things that have been released posthumously, things that were not even known about from the Saturn catalogue that were just only discovered after the release of this. There’s a single called ‘Orbitration in Blue,’ which was only discovered after the Evidence thing came out. And this has got an extended version! So this new release has some music that even the most ardent Ra-o-philes won’t own. It’s a whole different listening experience, because you’re getting a really in-depth version of the story.”
“In-depth” is an apt term. Commissioned by Sun Ra, LLC, this music comes not from secondhand sources, like record collectors, but from the original session reels. Ra had given these to Michael D. Anderson, former percussionist in the Arkestra (now executive director of the Sun Ra Music Archive). Chusid has been able to help restore them. In other words, not only is there more music to be heard, but the previously available music now sounds substantially better.
“That’s the other big thing about the Evidence set: It wasn’t very well mastered,” says Griffiths. “The mastering was done from very lo-fi single pressings. But this set is going to sound fantastic, because of what Irwin Chusid and Michael Anderson, who’ve got access to the extended master tapes, have done.”
Sun Ra LLC also has a library of work from the many historians and discographers in the years since the artist’s departure. Griffiths is one of these historians. “I’m a big fan with a rather large scholarly knowledge of the workings of it all,” he says. “They trusted my expertise and knowledge of what is a very, very complex discography to say the least.” He assembled a more-or-less chronological sequence of tracks out of that knowledge, and annotated them extensively.
Played end to end, Singles sounds much like the great Sun Ra albums. (Many of these singles were ultimately included on his albums.) Like them, it draws from a wide range of times (though about half are from his Chicago period of the 1950s, they continued all the way up to a 1991 CD single) and places—recording studios, rehearsals, club gigs, his house. There are sides by big band, small groups, and at least two (versions of “I Am an Instrument,” recorded four decades apart) featuring solo Sun Ra.
Most interestingly, though, the collected singles engage in the usual panoply of styles, from swing to experimental freeform, to R&B—and doo-wop. He shares the bills with several vocal acts, including the groups the Nu Sounds and the Cosmic Rays, as well as a Memphis-bred R&B belter called Yochanan, the Space Age Vocalist.
It’s unknown how these artists came into Sun Ra’s orbit. “I’m sure that Alton Abraham was at least partly involved in finding these musicians, maybe hooking them up with [Sun Ra],” says Chusid. “Or these musicians came to his attention, he maybe saw them in the club. But he began working with them. Coaching these singers, helping them with their harmonies, their arrangements, providing musical backdrops to their vocals.”
“He would find places where there was a piano, it might be somebody’s basement or it might be anywhere,” Allen recalls. “And he would just work with these guys. Sometimes he would put us on the record with them.”
But these vocal groups are enigmas in their own right, adding to Sun Ra’s mystique. “He might have given them names, or he might have changed their names, assigned them a name for a record and they didn’t exist as an actual vocal group that was out there performing,” says Chusid. “Some of the same singers that were part of the Cosmic Rays might also have been in the Nu Sounds. The Nu Sounds who sang on one recording may not have been the same Nu Sounds who sang on another recording. These are part of the mysteries of that period.”
Singles, then, represents a crucial piece of the puzzle—but not the last piece. According to Allen, there are perhaps thousands of hours of unheard recordings. “He recorded everything, good or bad,” says Allen. Every day we would rehearse for hours, seven days a week, and he would record it. For thirty-four years.”
The whole picture will probably never be clear—and if Sun Ra truly did return to Saturn after departing his earthly body, as he always claimed, he is probably quite satisfied with that. “I think he wanted us to keep digging through the myth and the facts and the speculation,” says Chusid, “and to spend centuries piecing together an accurate chronicle.” By itself, Singles: The Definitive 45s Collection offers enough wonderful music for years of close examination.
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