Only a foolhardy person would claim to have assembled all the singles Sun Ra released during his long and, at the time, uncatalogued career and, sensibly, the compilers of Strut Records’ Sun Ra Singles make no such assertion. The three-CD set is subtitled The Definitive 45s Collection, not the complete one. It is, however, the most comprehensive collection put together to date, totalling 65 tracks – an increase of 16 on its predecessor, Evidence Records’ 1996 compilation, Sun Ra: The Singles. A few other previously unknown singles are almost certain to be identified sometime in the future.
Sun Ra Singles spans the years 1952-1991, from 38 years after Ra’s foetal arrival in Birmingham, Alabama from Saturn until two years before his death. Most were recorded during the 1950s in Chicago, some later in and around New York. The collection includes spoken-word recitations, long-shot chart-shots recorded with Chicago doo-wop quartet the Cosmic Rays, early small band recordings and later ones with the full-blown Arkestra.
What’s in a name? When it comes to Ra, the answer is “plenty.” The names he gave the Arkestra varied from disc to disc and from gig to gig. Sun Ra Singles includes only a small sample, but they are as otherworldly as the music: the Astro-Infinity Arkestra, the Outer Space Arkestra, the Astro-Solar-Infinity Arkestra and the Astro-Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra. To read the complete list of over 50 names is like reading a poem. But nothing is as transporting as the music, which embraces R&B, blues, bop, psychedelia and homages to swing-era bandleaders Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson – sometimes all in the same tune. Ra’s was a long, strange trip and listening to it is as timeless and magical as ever.