SUN RA REVISITED:
SUPERSONIC JAZZ (Evidence ECD 22015-2) 
ANGELS AND DEMONS AT PLAY c/w THE NUBIANS OF PLUTONIA (Evidence ECD 22066-2) [1956, 1958, 1959, 1960]
Mike Champagne read my earlier review of Sun Ra and writes, “I agree also that much of the later stuff is a lot of BS, but you must admit that there are also lots of pearls among those many oysters. I had the pleasure of seeing Sun Ra perform on two separate occasions, once in the late ’70s and once in 1992, and both are among the most memorable concerts I have had the pleasure of attending. Such energy, and truly cohesive playing by such a large ensemble . . . with no charts! Marshall Allen has got to be the most expressive player I have ever seen live.“At any rate, I was disappointed that you did not mention some of the other earlier Arkestra recordings, specifically SUPERSONIC JAZZ and ANGELS AND DEMONS AT PLAY/THE NUBIANS OF PLUTONIA, the latter if only for its spirited reading of Julian Priester’s ‘Urnack.’ Unfortunately Evidence does not put the recording dates on the outside of their packages – only inside the booklets, all of which are very good, as I am sure you will agree. Consequently, it is often difficult for the novice to determine what is what. I turned a nephew on to Sun Ra with copies of SUN SONG and SUPERSONIC JAZZ a few years ago and tried to caution him that all Sun Ra CDs were not of this caliber...and he ended up buying a lot of stuff recorded in the ’60s that he finds interesting (luckily) but is still not what he was looking for. So the more applicable titles you could list the better. There; I think that's what I'm trying to say!”
So let’s take a look at the two albums Mike mentions – and a later album referred to by the liner-notes writers for both Evidence CDs.
To begin with, the first two (really three) albums have a long and tangled history. I have listed the recording dates above (in the brackets), rather than the release dates, since they give a better sense of when this material actually dates from. SUPERSONIC JAZZ (originally issued as SUPER-SONIC JAZZ) was Sun Ra’s first Saturn release, in 1957, and due to the home-made nature of Ra’s Saturn label, it had a number of LP editions, at least four with its original catalog number (SRLP-216) between 1957 and 1965.
ANGELS AND DEMONS AT PLAY was apparently first issued in 1965, but is made up of two very different sessions, one from 1960 (originally side one) and one from 1956 (side two) – the latter contemporaneous with the recording of SUPER-SONIC JAZZ. The Evidence CD combines this short album with THE NUBIANS OF PLUTONIA, which was recorded in 1958 and 1959.
Some confusion surrounds this latter album. According to Evidence, NUBIANS was originally issued by Saturn in 1966 as “THE LADY WITH THE GOLDEN STOCKINGS (El Saturn 406). In the late 1960s, the title was changed to THE NUBIANS OF PLUTONIA.” However, Neal Umphred, in his Goldmine’s Price Guide to Collectible Jazz Albums 1949-1969, draws upon the discography of Sun Ra scholar Robert Campbell (to whom Evidence’s annotators also defer) to contradict this. Saturn 406 was never titled THE LADY WITH THE GOLDEN STOCKINGS. That catalog number was applied only to NUBIANS when the album was issued under that title in 1969. However, Umphred mistakenly states “Saturn 406 is a reissue of 9956-2-M/N,” which was titled ROCKET #9 TAKE OFF FOR THE PLANET VENUS when it was released in 1966. What’s more, this album (ROCKET #9) was also reissued as Saturn 203, INTERSTELLAR
In 1974 Ra cut a deal with ABC-Impulse to re-release these albums. SUPERSONIC JAZZ was reissued as SUPER-SONIC SOUNDS (AS-9271). ANGELS AND DEMONS AT PLAY (AS-9245) and THE NUBIANS OF PLUTONIA (AS-9242) were not retitled. All sported a “Saturn Research” logo. (Impulse also released several other Saturn albums, all with much more attractive – professional – packaging than the originals. These releases were the first Sun Ra albums many people encountered – and on a label known for its releases by John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler and others who might be considered Ra’s musical kin. The Impulse deal was one of Ra’s smartest career moves.)
As the first album Sun Ra released, SUPERSONIC JAZZ offers early takes on pieces which would crop up on other subsequent albums. “Blues At Midnight” appeared again on JAZZ IN SILHOUETTE, “Medicine for a Nightmare” was used again on ANGELS AND DEMONS AT PLAY (the 1956 side), and “El is a Sound of Joy” was recorded for the second Transition album, eventually issued by Delmark as SOUND OF JOY. The album had one composition not by Ra, trombonist Julian Priester’s “Soft Talk.”
When I first heard this album (in 1974, when I found it on Impulse), I was initially excited to find such an early recording, which I hoped would be as rewarding as Ra’s other early albums. But after I listened to it I was disappointed. It seemed less well-defined, less focussed, and it was less satisfying. It was almost like listening to an album of demos. I would compare it with SOUND OF JOY; as I said of that album, “The material is weaker, the textures thinner.”
That thinner texture is worth remarking upon. This album was recorded by a 12-piece band – a “big band” in jazz parlance. Yet much of the album sounds like the work of a small combo, with Ra’s piano and the bass and drums playing with or behind one horn at a time. Even in 1956 Ra was experimenting with piano plus percussion (he used both a drummer and a musician who played tympani and timbali on this date; he also used both an acoustic bassist and an “electronic” bassist) to create “eastern” moods. After 1960 this would be the norm for Ra’s Arkestra: open space, lots of percussion and only rare full-band ensembles.
This is exemplified by ANGELS/NUBIANS, which covers a four-year period of recording during which Sun Ra led his music away from its original big-band sound. These two albums must have confused their LP buyers. The Saturn LPs never revealed mundane things like recording dates, and the Impulse albums simply give the wrong dates. (The Impulse ANGELS AND DEMONS AT PLAY credits its material to “1955-1956-1957” when it actually dates from 1956 and 1960; the Impulse NUBIANS OF PLUTONIA was “recorded at El Saturn Studios, Chicago, 1959” but, according to Robert Campbell, “was recorded at various locations in Chicago in 1958 and 1959.”)
The 1956 portion of ANGELS – four tracks, the fifth through eighth on the CD – is the only part of this album which captures the early “big-band” sound of the “Myth-Science Arkestra.” Those tracks include Priester’s “Urnack,” which Mike mentioned in his letter. The other half of the original ANGELS is spacier, looser, and more percussion-oriented. Both halves were recorded by nine-piece bands, of whom John Gilmore (tenor sax) and Ra himself are the only members in common.
NUBIANS, on the other hand, was recorded by a twelve-member band – but sounds as loose and open as the smaller 1960 band. In his liner notes for the CD, John Corbett says, “1957 to 1959, the zone that falls between the two chronological poles of ANGELS AND DEMONS AT PLAY, offers the initial answer to the question: How does the Arkestra get from being a boldly eccentric big-band to being the pioneer percussion-heavy open-improvisation ensembles of the early 1960s? The music on THE NUBIANS OF PLUTONIA consists entirely of Arkestra rehearsal tapes drawn from that transitional period. Here, with the full-strength horn section on hand, we encounter a loosening group, stocked with percussion….”
In other words, for those seeking the “boldly eccentric big-band,” ANGELS/NUBIANS offers relatively little (although “‘Plutonian Nights’ and ‘Star Time’” – both on NUBIANS – “both utilize thick charts, full of Ra’s trademark twisted turns,” as Corbett points out). But those who have been wondering about the band’s evolution will find it documented on this CD.Both Corbett and Tom Moon, who wrote the notes for the CD of SUPERSONIC JAZZ, mention (with warm praise) the 1980 concert which was released as
The album was recorded at a live concert on Sunday, February 24, 1980 at Gasthof Mohren in
But what most impressed me was the opening track, “Light From a Hidden Sun,” in which Ra plays what, in a different context, could pass for modern polytonal classical music and carries it off elegantly. His touch is perfect, and his execution on this solo piano work is exemplary. I was strongly reminded of the work and the sound of Cecil Taylor. On the other hand, I was mildly offended by the travesty made of Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” which comes off as a razzberry at Monk and belittles one of his major pieces.
The point this album makes is that, in 1980, twenty years after he had largely abandoned his big-band charts, Sun Ra still occasionally gave a fond look back to earlier eras in jazz – and his band, here a nine-piece with two drummers, was able to rise to the occasion, charts or no charts. (There had to have been rehearsals, but the lack of charts probably explains the occasional raggedness.)
The Hat CD was issued in 1991, only two years before Ra’s death. In this last period of Ra’s career he seemed restless with the free-jazz he had surrounded himself with for thirty years, and this atypical album seemed to fit in with restlessness, for all that it was recorded a decade earlier.
“The more applicable titles you could list the better,” Mike suggests, and there are other Sun Ra albums which date from the ’50s and the early ’60s. They are all Saturn releases now available on CD from Evidence. They include SOUND SUN PLEASURE (Evidence ECD 22014-2), WE TRAVEL THE SPACEWAYS c/w BAD AND BEAUTIFUL (Evidence ECD 22038-2), SUN RA VISITS PLANET EARTH c/w INTERSTELLAR
None of those albums are as good as SUN SONG and JAZZ IN SILHOUETTE, but each offers something for the die-hard fan of Ra’s big-band work. SOUND SUN PLEASURE includes the original Saturn album (apparently released in the late ’60s), “thought to be recorded between 1958 and 1960 in
WE TRAVEL THE SPACEWAYS was recorded in three separate sessions by three different Arkestras in 1956, 1958 or 1959 and 1959 or 1960. The music is loose and combo-like, but still not yet free-jazz. BAD AND BEAUTIFUL was recorded in 1961 after Ra had moved his band to
SUN RA VISITS PLANET EARTH is one of the earlier recordings, despite the fact that Saturn apparently released it in 1968: it was recorded in 1956 (side one of the LP) and 1958 (side two). INTERSTELLAR
FATE IN A PLEASANT MOOD was recorded around the same time as INTERSTELLAR
What these releases reveal is that Sun Ra had a limited repertoire of compositions during his “big-band” period, and he tended to reuse these on his many Saturn album releases in various performances – often leavened with looser improvisations recorded at his rehearsals. (Ra rehearsed his band every day and all day – with a lunch break – before reassembling them for their nightly club performances, and apparently recorded many of these rehearsals.) The best of his compositions and the band’s performances remain on SUN SONG and JAZZ IN SILHOUETTE. That’s disappointing for anyone who hoped for more, but we can at least celebrate what there was.
And those who share my fondness for early Sun Ra will want all the Evidence CDs mentioned here, despite the fact that they do not measure up to SUN SONG or JAZZ IN SILHOUETTE. In ANGELS/NUBIANS they will find the key to the evolution of Ra’s band, the seeds of which had apparently been with Ra all along.
NOTE: While I was at the Collecting Channel I did a three-part series of short articles on Sun Ra. These pieces borrowed heavily, in part, from my first Sun Ra review here, and for that reason I did not initially include them in my Bios, Histories & Discographies section. However, spurred by the research I did for this piece, I went back and took another look at them and edited them down into one short piece which includes all the historical and discographical information which was not used in my review.
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