Written by 11:31 pm Audiophile, Audiophile Music, Audiophile News, News, Vinyl

The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra: 60th Anniversary, 180-gram Kevin Gray Remastered, RTI-Pressed Vinyl Reissue Primes Album For 21st Century Renaissance

Mark Smotroff sets the controls for the heart of the Sun…

A long time ago in a land far away called Syracuse, I learned a hard lesson to trust my own gut instincts when it comes to making decisions about what music I like or what I might be interested in trying. That said, sometimes old experiences continue to haunt and linger in the back of one’s mind, getting in the way moving forward…

My personal case in point centers on my appreciation of an artist named Sun Ra. Now, some of you know by now that I’m a big Frank Zappa fan as well as much of the music I discovered from his universe: Captain Beefheart, Edgar Varese, Igor Stravinsky, Stockhausen, John Cage, and so on. I am into plenty of experimental musics. Fast forward, sometime when I was in college there was a dude telling me that I needed to listen to Sun Ra, but he was trying to sell me in for all the wrong reasons. He thought I’d like it because it was “weird” and “freaked out” and several expletive-enhanced variants of that concept (it helps if you say them in a stoner voice).  

And because this person was somebody that I didn’t exactly respect 100%, I kind of steered clear of Sun Ra’s music for a long time.

My bad, as they say…

By the time I started figuring out that maybe this Sun Ra character was somebody I should listen to, his records were by then rare as hens teeth and going for huge amounts of money on the collector’s market.  

Complicating matters, cracking the code toward exploring Ra’s music became a daunting brick wall for me to unravel because they were so many pirate copies around and one-off home pressed records he issued over the years. It was hard to know which records to get and where to start (and in some ways, that hasn’t changed!). 

Instead, I took a deeper dive backwards exploring the world of Duke Ellington (I have well over 100 Ellington albums in my collection) and Mingus, Monk, Miles  and so on. Lately I’ve been “going deep” on Louis Armstrong’s catalog. 

A few years ago fate was on my side and I found a relatively early pressing of one of Sun Ra’s classic albums – The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume 1 — at an estate sale for a few dollars which I turned out to like very much  This was just the kind of discovery I needed to trigger my curiosity to dig deeper.  By this point, I was less interested in buying more CDs, so I’ve been holding out for vinyl opportunities to arise. 

Ra’s records have only continued to escalate in value, especially in these days of well-heeled hipster collectors forking up premium coin for rare original pressings.  

Fortunately, for the rest of us who are on budgets, there are some interesting reissues happening from companies with good reputations behind them.

Such as the case of the new 60th anniversary edition of Sun Ra’s first album for Savoy records, recorded in 1961 and issued in 1962, The Futuristic Sounds Of Sun Ra. It was his first album recorded in New York City. And… get this … it was produced by none other than Tom Wilson – who went on to record no less than Bob Dylan, The Mothers Of Invention, Simon & Garfunkel and The Velvet Underground!  

Clearly, Mr. Wilson had a keen ear for the futuristic sounds of music! 

The new 180-gram vinyl reissue of The Futuristic Sounds Of Sun Ra from Craft Recordings — which is part of Concord Music, owners of the rich catalogs of music which appeared on the Prestige, Fantasy, Milestone and Savoy labels, among others — was made in an all-analog mastering process by Kevin Grey at Cohearent Audio. The albums were pressed at the respected Recording Technology, Inc. (RTI) facility and the discs sport period-accurate reproductions of the Savoy Records label. This looks and feels like an old Savoy Records pressing. 

Another great thing about this re-issue of The Futuristic Sounds Of Sun Ra is that it features the rare original artwork done by artist Harvey (full name: Harvey Scott Williams) which is worth owning just for its really incredible design. Later pressings featured less exotic, less exciting, less cosmic cover art. If you want to get a handle on how rare those original editions are, take a peek at the collectors website called Popsike where you will see original copies that I’ve been selling for anywhere from $500 to over $1000 a piece just this year!  Normally I’d point you to Discogs first but there were exactly zero original copies available there at the time of this writing! 

To that, I don’t have an original of The Futuristic Sounds Of Sun Ra to compare this to but I can tell you this edition sounds really nice. The pressing is excellent with dark black vinyl that is well centered and quiet. Most importantly the music sounds great for a 60 year old recording made by a once obscure and overlooked artist — it is kind of amazing that the original tapes even exist! There are far more famous artists whose master tapes have disappeared, so this is a quite a blessing for Sun Ra fans that these recordings are still around. 

In fact, this reissue may arguably sound better than the originals. From reissue producer Irwin Chusid’s liner notes we learn that while the album was recorded in Binaural Stereo, it was initially issued only in Monaural. This new edition is presented to us in full fidelity Stereo and it sounds quite wonderful in all its raw, in-the-moment glory. 

In 1962, the music and reputation of Sun Ra was not well known save for those lucky few in the know.  And apparently, later on his music took on more of that (ahem) “freaked out” otherworldliness with which my acquaintance in Syracuse was trying to entice me. 

Listening to The Futuristic Sounds Of Sun Ra with 20/20 hindsight and perhaps more educated ears, this music plays like a really fresh jazz album which feels out of time and place. This music is definitely jazz leaning and not yet fully into the space music exploration vibe. It doesn’t necessarily feel like 1962 or 2022 for that matter. 

But you can hear the adventuresome nature of what they were trying to accomplish. Frankly, if you had put this on without my knowing what it was I might have thought it was some current band exploring new rhythms and musical twists and turns. Some of the instrumentation here is quite exotic including (from the liner notes): “Bells from India, Chinese Wind Chimes, Wood Blocks, Maracas, Claves, Scratchers, Gongs, Cowbells, Turkish Cymbals, Castanets” This is not your average Kenny G album, kiddies!

Some of the titles are pretty groovy themselves: such as the quite beautiful “Tapestry From An Astroid” and the fine album closer “Space Jazz Reverie.”

I’m not going to spoil it all for you by recasting the details within, but one of the other great things about this reissue is that it comes with an album-sized insert of liner notes by Ben Young and album producer (who hails from from my hometown of Maplewood, New Jersey!), Irwin Chusid. Mr. Chusid is the exclusive administrator for Sun Ra’s legacy and he also is responsible for the catalogs of Raymond Scott and Esquivel! I can’t underestimate the importance of good liner notes to help put a recording into proper context historically, especially if you are someone like me who is a relative newbie to the Ra universe. 

So if you’re curious about Sun Ra like I’ve been and haven’t known where to start, this fine issue of one of his earliest albums, The Futuristic Sounds Of Sun Ra, might well be one of the best places to start. You should grab one of these before they disappear from the store shelves.

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