Sun Ra ‘Singles – The Definitive 45s Collection: 1952-1961’ 3CD (Strut) 5/5

A year or so ago Strut records brought out one of the most compelling of Sun Ra anthologies compiled with love by DJ Gilles Peterson and the label returns with this new offering that effectively opens up a whole new chapter in the Sun Ra story and makes the re-issue worth all the effort. Long-time fans of the musician may not immediately warm to this given that the numbers are significantly shorter than on the usual album format, but they would be wrong to ignore it because the music is historically significant in that it sheds vital light on how Sun Ra and the Arkestra evolved at a time in the mid-1950s when music was experiencing seismic shifts below the surface and, crucially, it charts how the leader had soaked up the influences of other jazz musicians around him, and even other musical influences taking in doo-wop, R & B and vocalese. Of interest to potential buyers are the varying formats that this package comes in. While the first issue is a triple CD, in March 2017 two separate vinyl editions will be released, one as a 3LP in a gatefold sleeve and the other, an extremely limited edition 10 x 45s box set with original art work reproduced and a booklet. Sun Ra aficionados will want to acquire either of these and the originals are near impossible to find these days.

The first CD here focuses on the early-mid 1950s and one is struck by who seemingly conventional Sun Ra and the band sounds, or to phrase it another way, how competent the Arkestra were at performing straight ahead swing and bop jazz, and this makes the later exploratory material all the more innovative.There is something of an American songbook feel to, ‘Chicago USA’, with male vocal while, ‘Daddy’s gonna tell you no lie’, has a strong 1950s doo-wop barber’s shop feel to it. That said, Sun Ra was clearly evolving as an artist and a left-field number such as, ‘I’m strange’, with spoken dialogue leaves little doubt as to the alternative direction that the leader was in the process of undertaking.

On the second CD, vocalist Hattie Randolph is showcased and delights on a superlative reading of the standard, ‘Round midnight’, while the B-side to this single, ‘Back in your own back yard’, has a definite echo quality. The funkier side to the Arkestra surfaces on the strong R & B influenced number, ‘Tell her to come on home’. From an instrumental perspective, both ‘Saturn’ and ‘Velvet’ are fine examples of bop-inflected jazz with a modern twist and there is some fine tenor saxophone soloing to admire. Keyboard soloing comes to the fore on, ‘Space loneliness’, with fine trumpet soloing and Sun Ra was an early exponent of the electric piano, even in the 1950s.

For the final CD, the band come full circle and a minor hit in the UK from 1982 (available also as a 12″ on the indie label that among others Pigbag recorded on), ‘Nuclear war’, became the title track to an album. More progressive dancefloors could attempt to showcase the hypnotic, ‘Disco 2021’, while Sun Ra’s increasing preoccupation with other worldliness is indicated by titles such as, ‘Saturn moon’ and ‘Cosmic extensions’.

The Strut research team along with archivist Michael D. Anderson deserve the highest praise for bringing this project to fruition and the listener gains enormously from hearing the singles in their totality. This is quite simply what anthologies were made for.

Tim Stenhouse