[UNRELEASED RECORDINGS]… 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)

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 setlists 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 in this collection, all but two dates 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), 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.—I.C. ~BandCamp

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

Cover art and design by Tony Kellers/Twelve3

Tape transfers: Haruhi Kobayashi and Matt Mehlan of ESS, and Michael D. Anderson/Sun Ra Music Archive
Master rights: Sun Ra LLC

The compilation, audio restoration, annotation: Irwin Chusid

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