Despite the fact that Sun Ra has over 1,000 titles copyrighted in his name, a good part of his concert and recorded repertoire consisted of works by other composers. He arranged—in his idiosyncratic way— tunes by Monk, Gershwin, Henderson (Fletcher and Horace), Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and countless others. But no one breezed into Sun Ra set lists more often than the "Duke"—Edward Kennedy Ellington.
Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Herman Poole "Sonny" Blount (born 1914) came of age in the 1930s, when big band "Swing" jazz was in vogue. When he later formed his Arkestra, Sonny drew on this legacy, though he re-shaped the big band format into something his own—a singular (afro-)futuristic reinvention that somehow echoed the music of his youth. Ra as an artist looked forward and backward. He relished innovation, but revered tradition. Paradoxically, the older he got—by the 1970s and '80s—the more Swing Era chestnuts he revived in his work. Despite the fact that many of his admired composers matured to create more advanced works after the 1930s—Ellington a perfect case in point—Ra’s taste remained rooted in the '30s. Of the 12 titles on this collection, all but two date from that decade—"East St. Louis Toodle-oo" is even earlier (1926), and "Duke’s Place" dates from 1942.
John Szwed, writing in the biography, SPACE IS THE PLACE: THE LIVES AND TIMES OF SUN RA, offers an interesting Ellingtonian vignette. In his twenties, Sonny was listening to, studying, transcribing, and performing contemporary big band jazz with a passion. Yet, writes Szwed, "Swing music was by now easy for him, formulaic and predictable. But he had another book of arrangements which [his] band rehearsed but never performed and whose purpose he never explained. … The compositions and arrangements in this book were inspired by dreams or made up of ideas derived from reading 'Popular Mechanics,' pieces … built on complex and oddly shifting rhythm patterns."
Szwed continues: "When Duke Ellington was in town, Sonny took his book of arrangements backstage to show him. They talked for over an hour, Ellington gracious and regal in his black silk dressing gown. At one point the Duke pulled out his own arrangements. Sonny saw that Ellington also used dissonance in his writing, only it never seemed dissonant. Sonny was thrilled to see his own ideas confirmed."
This collection of Ellingtonia features mostly previously unreleased material from two sources: the Sun Ra Music Archive, maintained by Michael D. Anderson, and the Experimental Sound Studio (ESS), Chicago. As with any Sun Ra compilation, audio fidelity varies from the sublime to the near-ridiculous. However, as any Ra fan will attest, the fidelity is usually secondary to the excitement of the performance. The collection opens with an early (1951)—and only recently discovered—intimate Ra duet with Wilbur Ware, recorded at Ra's Chicago apartment. From there things get raucous and reckless with concert recordings and two home-taped jams featuring Ra and a small ensemble of Arkestrans messing around with "Caravan" and "It Don't Mean a Thing"; the year and location of the latter session are unknown. There's more where that came from.
Finally, make of this what you will: Duke Ellington, born in 1899, passed away in 1974. Not a single Ellington title performed by Ra appears in the exhaustive discography The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra, by Robert L. Campbell and Christopher Trent, before 1975. That book, published in 2000, covered all known (at the time) studio and live recordings by Ra (with or without the Arkestra). In '75, "Lightnin'" and "Sophisticated Lady" entered the repertoire, joined by "Take the 'A' Train" and "Slippery Horn" a year later. Other Ellington titles were added by Ra and encored throughout the 1980s. It is within the realm of fair speculation that after Duke's death, Ra embarked on a mission to preserve not just Ellington's legacy, but the legacies of a number of his musical heroes of the 1930s. Large traveling jazz orchestras had gone out of fashion by the 1950s. Sun Ra was one of the few who sustained—and advanced—the format for decades to come. After Ellington's passing, Sun Ra apparently saw the need to return frequently to the source.
released May 27, 2022
All keyboards by Sun Ra. Arkestra personnel varies, but the following soloists have been identified:
3. Nöel Scott
5. Michael Ray, John Gilmore
6. Craig Harris, John Gilmore, Michael Ray
7. Marshall Allen
8. Ahmed Abdullah, Marshall Allen, Bruce Edwards
10. Marshall Allen
11. Tyrone Hill, John Gilmore
12. Walter Miller, John Gilmore
A Helpful Guide to the Many Sun Ra Albums on Bandcamp: daily.bandcamp.com/2017/10/13/sun-ra-album-guide
figure in musical Afro-futurism and space-jazz. Keyboardist, composer, Arkestra leader, arranger, philosopher-jester, fashion icon, cosmic guide. Born Herman Blount in Alabama, 1914, left the planet in 1993, giving Earthlings a monumental catalog of recordings that transcend genre....more