May 20, 2014 marks the centennial of music legend Sun Ra’s arrival on planet Earth (he left in 1993). To commemorate the astonishing and prolific legacy of this unique artist, the Sun Ra Music Archive has embarked on an extensive and exclusive Mastered for iTunes reissue program. The Mastered for iTunes format exceeds the standard 16-bit sound quality of CDs, starting with 24-bit transfers from the analog master tapes. This ensures that the music is delivered to listeners with increased audio fidelity that more closely replicates what the artists, recording engineers and producers intended. The albums will be released Tuesday, May 20, on the Enterplanetary Koncepts label (full Sun Ra catalog can be viewed at itunes.com/sunramusic).
Sun Ra was “filed under jazz,” but cannot be defined by one category. Like Ellington, Brian Wilson, and Frank Zappa, Sun Ra was sui generis. He explored electronica, funk, avant-garde soundscapes, musique concrète, and songcraft, while his styles spanned hard bop, exotica, R&B, piano improv, cosmic soul, swing, doo-wop, balladry, and invented forms. Sun Ra’s catalog is unfathomably large, requiring a universe of shelf space. On his self-owned El Saturn label he released hundreds of albums, many in limited pressings, spawning a worldwide collector’s market. Many of those collectibles are now available for the first time in digital format, under license from Sun Ra LLC, owned by the heirs of the legendary musician.
The Sun Ra Mastered for iTunes releases include material culled from session and rehearsal tapes, and production and album masters. The series includes a significant amount of previously unreleased material, some stereo mixes of tracks previously available only in mono, and complete versions of tracks which had been edited for the original LPs. Many of these tapes, and the records that were made from them, are high-quality lo-fi, having been recorded in studios, nightclubs, and ad hoc rehearsal spaces. The setup often consisted of just one or two mics, an open reel tape deck, and a primitive mixing console. The tapes reveal weird transient sounds – musicians bumping mics, a cough, dropped equipment, fingernails clicking on keyboards, accidental percussion, the studio phone ringing during a solo. These were not recorded with a Miles Davis budget in a Dave Brubeck studio. You’ve heard of “garage rock”? This is “garage jazz.” Yet with 24-bit transfers and meticulous restoration, these historic recordings have never sounded better.
These performances feature Arkestra stalwarts Marshall Allen (still touring with the band at age 89), tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, reed virtuoso Pat Patrick, bassist Ronnie Boykins, drummers Clifford Jarvis and Tommy “Bugs” Hunter, vocalist June Tyson, trombonist Julian Priester, percussionist Jim Herndon, and dozens of other illustrious members of the rotating Arkestral entourage.
The Sun Ra Music Archive, maintained by executive director Michael D. Anderson, houses an extensive library of 7-1/2 and 15 ips master tapes and session reels. Using these prime sources, Anderson has compiled 24-bit digital transfers, which have been painstakingly refined. The series rollout focuses on the first half of Sun Ra’s recording career, roughly 1956 to 1974, including many rare titles. This is a year-long project, with 21 albums slated for the May 20 launch, and dozens more to follow. Because it’s disorienting for curious new fans to know where to start savoring an artist who released countless albums and composed almost 1,000 songs, the Archive has compiled ten thematic collections, the “Explore the Cosmos” series, with such categories as “Outer Space,” “Hard Bop,” “Exotica,” “Avant-Garde,” “The Blues,” and “Percussion.”
Anderson has a legacy connection with Sun Ra and is one of the foremost keepers of the flame. A former radio DJ known as “Doctor Bop” (WBGO) and “The Good Doctor” (WFMU), Anderson played drums for and recorded with the Arkestra in the late 1970s. He lived with the leader and musicians at Saturn House in Philadelphia, recorded extensive interviews with Sunny, and was appointed Sun Ra’s personal tape librarian. Anderson has archived, indexed, and preserved these tapes for decades, and is delighted that a wider audience can finally hear Sun Ra’s deeper catalog in a superior mastering format. Anderson and his project partner, Irwin Chusid (of WFMU), have repaired tape breaks and distortion, corrected speed irregularities, fixed audio dropouts, and removed intrusive transients from the digital files. In some cases analog tape hiss has been lowered a tad, but they did not attempt to obliterate all analog artifacts. These recordings aren’t perfect. They will never be perfect. You don’t want them perfect. That might inadvertently remove a layer of soul.
Each release includes a downloadable pdf booklet, researched and written by Chusid (author of Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music). These booklets encapsulate the story behind each album without arcane technical details. They are greeting cards, welcoming you to the universe of Sun Ra. Explore the Cosmos.
Currently available in the iTunes Store from Enterplanetary Koncepts
Supersonic Jazz (1957)
Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth (1958)
Angels and Demons At Play (1965)
Interstellar Low Ways (1966)
Jazz in Silhouette (1959)
Nubians of Plutonia (1966)
Sound Sun Pleasure (1970)
We Travel the Spaceways (1967)
Fate in a Pleasant Mood (1965)
Holiday for Soul Dance (1970)
Bad and Beautiful (1972)
The Invisible Shield (1974)
When Sun Comes Out (1963)
Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy (1967)
Monorails and Satellites, Vol. 1 (1968)
Other Planes of There (1966)
The Magic City (1966)
Strange Strings (1967)
Astro Black (1972)
Universe in Blue (1972)