By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
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By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
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By Brian Palmer
Gordon became a fan in the early Seventies, but his association with this eccentric jazzman began many years before he saw his first Sun Ra concert.
"I owned a record store in Philly called Third Street Jazz and Rock. I specialized in selling Sun Ra's records, the ones he put out himself on his own El Saturn label. They're the very ones I'm reissuing now," says Gordon. "The discs were hard to get outside of Philadelphia, so people would come down from New York or mail in orders from all over the world. The band would press them, then haul them down to my store where they became scarce fast."
Gordon soon discovered that Ra was no less quirky offstage. "The band members would bring in records with no name. I would ask them what the title of a record was and they would make up a name on the spot."
Ra also had a habit of enlisting his band to work on manufacturing album jackets in between rehearsals. They would hand-color covers and autograph them, or cut out circles of brightly colored shower curtains and glue them onto the center of the record itself.
"Every time he would release a new record," says Gordon, "it would just add to the mystery of this man. But I spent most of my time explaining to customers why certain records weren't available any longer. Here was a major jazz artist and there was no place to get his records because he let them run out. It got me interested in the idea of reissuing."
The plan to systematically restore and reissue Sun Ra's prodigious output brought Gordon in touch with the Cosmic One himself--as well as one ungodly mess.
"Most recording artists store their master tapes in climatically controlled storage. But when I visited Sun Ra's house, they were all over the place, lying everywhere. There were tapes stuck in stacks of books, mixed in with piles of newspapers, stuck in envelopes. Even on the floor, where you'd step on them."
In talking with his idol, Gordon found the man not entirely the Egyptian space god.
"He's eccentric, but believe me, he does make himself understood," laughs Gordon. "Sun Ra can philosophize and Sun Ra can do business, all in the same conversation."
Unfortunately, recording quality is one area where Sun Ra has not been hell-bent for the 21st century. When it came to his El Saturn records, Ra proved to be no more interested in high-tech recording than he was in cleaning his house. For a while, Gordon feared he might not be able to share the treasures he found scattered throughout Ra's home.
"The masters were in terrible shape. None of them had been recorded on professional equipment. Lying around on the floor and in boxes, the tapes really deteriorated. My partner and I had to become experts on tape restoration, since the tapes were unusable as they were."
It was decided to ship the music of the self-appointed Egyptian deity to the middle of a different desert. (All the Sun Ra discs were remastered at SAE Mastering in Phoenix. See related story.)
Gordon's visit to Ra's house led him to narrow his focus toward reissuing the first 30 of the self-pressed El Saturn records. Those are the rarest in the eyes of avid Ra collectors bent on gathering all of Ra's 120-plus catalogue. (Some estimate the total to be more than 150.)
Gordon's selections--the first five were released in January--present Sun Ra as he was in the Fifties and Sixties. By today's standards, the music on these five releases is pretty tame stuff. It's mostly tonal, big-band jazz flecked with the occasional odd chord or offbeat rhythm. By beginning his Ra series with the pianist's more mainstream records, Gordon hopes to illuminate the path Ra followed toward his later, deep-space jazz explorations.
The first reissue, 1956's Supersonic Jazz, shows Sun Ra schizophrenically flipping from typical big-band swing to his sci-fi jazz meditations. The tune "India" presents Ra as a full-fledged Eastern mystic. The number falls into such a cobra-dance clich‚ it could back a cartoon--Betty Boop in a pith helmet comes to mind. "Advice to Medics," from the same album, is a solo keyboard outing, played on a circa 57 electric piano. This recording is a full 11 years before groundbreaker Miles Davis was willing to try that particular instrument in his band.
From another corner of Sun Ra's living room has come 58's Jazz in Silhouette. Here Ra continues to lovingly cater to his big-band-jazz roots. The horn section blows with big-band clarity and abruptness, unlike days to come when all would wail more freely. The somber pallor of the tune "Ancient Aiethopia" provides the album's only dollop of oddness, made stranger yet when Ra chose to follow it with the Mancinilike "Hours After." At times here, Ra channels the big-band half of his style into out-and-out comedy.
The next album, Sound Sun Pleasure, shows Ra's dark mind at new depths. The garish old band standard "I Could Have Danced All Night" is puzzling, played with a blatant Holiday Inn lounge accent. His strangling of "Deep Purple" is so bleak and eerie the listener is likely to wonder if Ra's developing persona isn't, uh, a little unhealthy.