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Reissue CDs Weekly: Sun Ra | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Sun Ra

Reissue CDs Weekly: Sun Ra

Singles collection provides the one-stop overview the jazz adventurer needed

The early Seventies model Sun Ra leads his band on stage in Egypt, the home of his namesake deity © Hartmut Geerken

Attempts to steer a straightforward path through the music of Sun Ra have always been hampered by the volume of records issued, their limited availability and trying to work out whether they represent something he had a hand in releasing. Just because an album is in the shops does not necessarily mean it was part of the artist’s own vision of who they are or were.

Last time theartsdesk encountered a Sun Ra collection, it generated the comments that he “had issued around 117 albums, about 46 of which were live sets. Trying to pin down exact numbers with Sun Ra is unrealistic. Some albums repeated material from previous releases. Others were re-recordings or re-titlings. Since his passing there has been an outpouring of collections of previously shelved studio material, more live offerings and reissues on CD and vinyl. Getting to grips with this monumental catalogue is close-to impossible. Unless you had followed his releases since he first arrived in the mid-Fifties, finding an entry point is equally awkward.” Until now, that is.

SUN RA SINGLES The Definitive 45s Collection 1952–1991Singles - The Definitive 45s Collection 1952–1991 is exactly what it says it is. Sixty-five tracks are spread across three CDs and sequenced in chronological order of their release or recording. There are ventures where Sun Ra and his band provided backing or were uncredited: the doo wop-like “It’s Christmas Time”/“Happy New Year to You!” single was credited to The Qualities and originally issued in either 1956, 1960 or 1961 (little is clear cut in Sun Ra-world). There are tracks backing the R&B singers Yochanan (billed as “A Space Age Vocalist”) and Little Mack Gordon. There are the almost-endless names Sun Ra chose for his bands: the Cosmic Rays (first known as the Cosmic Echoes), the Astro Infinity Arkestra, the Outer Space Arkestra, the Astro-Solar-Infinity Arkestra, the Astro-Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra. But most important is that this is the first release ever to scoop-up a discrete aspect of the Sun Ra catalogue, bring it together in one place and then present it coherently.

The lengthy annotation is as exhaustive as it could be and says everything known about each track. Sometimes, this is not much but line-ups are given and soloists are noted. For Sun Ra, more usually known through his albums, the single might suggest itself as a limiting or limited outlet. Not a bit of it. Everything he encompassed is here: boogie woogie, Duke Ellington-influenced big band workouts, free-form weirdness, a Gershwin interpretation, hot R&B stompers, impressionistic mood pieces, just-about free jazz, ragtime, swing and more.

There is, however, a slightly cheeky aspect to the sequencing. The first six tracks, though the earliest recordings, are drawn from three singles issued in, respectively, 2009, 2005 and 1983. The real-time – as opposed to after the fact – presentation of the releases in the order they were actually issued does not begin until track seven, with the 1956 Billie Hawkins with Sun-Ra and his Orchestra single “I’m Coming Home”. Also, on disc one, two tracks do not appear as per the order of the tracklist: “It’s Christmas Time” is track 17 rather than 18, and “Happy New Year to You!” is 18 rather than 17. These observations notwithstanding, nothing undermines what is an important release. Finally, 23 years after his death, Sun Ra’s music gets the one-stop overview it needed. Head here for the way in.

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