March 15, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (2nd edition)
By Robert L. Campbell & Christopher Trent
Cadence Jazz Books (ISBN: 1-881993-35-3)

This is an example of “amateur” scholarship in the best sense of the word. In an attempt to get a handle on Ra’s vast (and vastly confusing) discography, Clemson psychology professor (and Sun Ra fan) Robert L. Campbell began compiling a list of all known recordings, building upon the work of Hartmut Geerken and Dr. Tilman Stahl in the 1980s. In 1992, Prof. Campbell shared his findings with the Saturn internet list-serv and the small but resourceful cyber-community of Sun Ra fans contributed a wealth of new information. Sun Ra was notoriously vague about dates and personnel and many Saturn LPs were issued in blank or hand-scrawled sleeves containing zero information – not even a title! Therefore, intensive forensic analysis was required to even attempt to ascertain essential discographical details. The end result of this communitarian effort was the publication of the first edition of The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra in 1994. Subsequently, further new discoveries were made and, with the help of co-author and fellow Ra-fanatic, Christopher Trent, this second, massively enlarged edition was published by Cadence Jazz Books in 2000.

Campbell and Trent strive to document not only all of Sun Ra’s officially released recordings, both as a sideman and a leader, but also all known live performances, unissued recordings, and rumored sessions. They also attempt to trace the Ra’s footsteps around the globe where recordings are unknown. Posthumous performances by the Marshall Allen-led Arkestra up through 1998 are also included. Did I mention the discography is massive? The first edition included 501 items across 218 pages while the second edition lists 788 items and totals 847 pages, including several handily cross-referenced indexes. The 6” x 8” paperbound book weighs in at over three pounds!

It is a shame, however, that such a thick, heavy tome is so poorly bound. The signatures have been brutally chopped off and the three-inch-thick text block is merely glued to a flimsy cardboard cover. With any prolonged use, the spine will surely fail and pages will begin to fall out. A somewhat expensive purchase, I would have preferred that this monumental reference work had been more sturdily constructed. Alas, The Earthly Recordings is a labor of love for a vanishingly small, specialized audience and no doubt a library bound edition would cost upwards of $100.00. Nevertheless, The Earthly Recordings is an essential resource for the serious Sun Ra fan. Now almost a decade out of date, perhaps a hardbound, thousand-page third edition will be forthcoming.


Another fabulous resource (that I forgot I even had) is Sun Ra Scores: The Library of Congress Endowment, another amazing bit of scholarship compiled by ethnomusicologist James Wolf. From the years 1956 to 1973, Ra deposited a couple hundred pages of sheet music to the Library of Congress for copyright purposes and Wolf managed to retrieve and photocopy the collection during the mid-1990s. Subsequently, the collection was made available to members of the Saturn internet community for a nominal copying fee. Predictably, most of the “scores” contain only the barest information: a melody, lyrics, and perhaps some chord symbols. However, as I was flipping through them today, I was surprised to find meticulously detailed scores for “And Otherness” and “Moon Dance,” two seemingly loosely structured pieces from Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy. These appear to be not mere transcriptions, but fully realized compositions with additional elements not found on the record. Fascinating!


With these tools at hand, we will continue the examination of the Choreographer’s Workshop recordings next week (I hope).

1 comment:

Sam said...

I hear what you're saying about the binding of the 2nd edition--the spine on mine is cracked, and I'm worried that pages are going to start falling out. Admittedly, I've used it a lot--a lot!--but it pretty much started falling apart as soon as I got it.

Until (if) a new edition ever comes out, for the record there's also the "Earthly Extension" at
which has some updates, some listings not in the 2nd ed. Also, I have been compiling a list of corrections and amplifications, not very extensive, maybe 10-15 entries.