It seems odd now that this LP, one of the first recordings the Sun Ra Arkestra made upon arriving in New York in 1961, could get lost in the reissue shuffle. Just prior to Sun Ra leaving the planet nearly 30 years ago, Evidence records began a reissue program that started to make sense of Ra’s back catalogue, his 1956-1960 Chicago recordings in particular. The albums they unearthed had been released in trickles, often years after they were recorded, for Sun Ra’s own Saturn label, and were essentially unknown to most of us.
Other labels, such as Atavistic, Art Yard, Roaratorio, and Sundazed’s Modern Harmonic subsidiary jumped on board, pressing new vinyl and CDs of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s Saturns, unreleased rehearsals, live shows, and more. At the same time, many of the CDs Evidence released found their way onto mysteriously pressed LPs with the original cover art. Currently, Sun Ra’s Bandcamp page is a treasure trove of recordings, many with heretofore unreleased alternates and other tracks. Right now, a well-stocked record shop could easily carry 50 or more Sun Ra titles.
But there was a time when 95% of his music was impossible to track down. You might score a Rounder Records release, or with a deeper dig, an ESP, a BYG, or one of the 1970’s Impulse Saturn reissues. You might have even stumbled across an album titled We Are in the Future, a 1984 LP reissue on Savoy, a once crucial jazz label. Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, and others cut sides for Savoy. By the early 1960s, the company branched out in an attempt to document some of the music’s changes. Which is how Sun Ra and his recently NYC-based Arkestra came to record The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra, the original title for We Are in the Future, in November of 1961.
Anyone hearing it without knowledge of Sun Ra’s other work from this period might have been surprised by how inside the bulk of this record sounds. Yet, now we can listen to it alongside his other work from the same period, such as Bad and Beautiful, Interstellar Low Ways, The Nubians of Plutonia, Fate in a Pleasant Mood, or Holiday for Soul Dance, and recognize it as a natural part of Sun Ra’s forward push. It’s arguably the last recording he would make for many years that included more than a few hints of jazz’s traditions.
While it’s had a number of reissues since its original 1962 release, Craft Recordings has re-mastered the tracks in analogue and presented them in the original mono, including the original cover art and liner notes, plus new notes by jazz historian Ben Young and writer and Sun Ra expert Irwin Chusid, making this the reissue to own.
The music marries jazz’s infectious swing with Sun Ra’s advanced harmonic structures and Duke Ellington-in-space horn charts, making this record deserving of broader attention. Also, because it was recorded on a single day, The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra paints a consistent picture of a band using the launchpad of its past to jump into the future. The opening track, “Bassism”, is one example. Pitting longtime Arkestra bassist Ronnie Boykins against the horns of John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, and Bernard McKinney, the feeling is moody, sparse, and slightly exotic as Marshall Allen’s flute takes the lead. Yet, it’s the second half of the track when an insistent horn riff and nearly-Cuban cowbell come in behind McKinney’s euphonium that serves as the tune’s center. There’s nothing else quite like this song in Sun Ra’s recordings from the early 1960s.
“Where Is Tomorrow?” is a precursor to some of Sun Ra Arkestra’s more groove-based tunes from later in the decade and beyond. A tambourine underpins a nearly hocketed horn-riff as Ra’s piano rides along underneath. A duel between Gilmore’s bass clarinet and Allen’s piccolo gives way to Sun Ra, hovering over the low keys and never quite deviating from the rhythm before the opening horn line re-appears. “The Beginning” hints at the kinds of reverb-drenched, percussion-heavy guided improvisations Sun Ra would explore on subsequent records such as Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow or Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy. Here, once multiple hand drummers establish a pattern, horns bob and weave gracefully as if conjuring a most delicate and elusive spirit from the ether.
The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra‘s one real anomaly points backward to Sun Ra’s many flirtations with Les Baxter-esque exotica during his Chicago days. Victor Young and Harold Adamson’s “China Gate”, from the Samuel Fuller film of the same name and originally sung by Nat King Cole, is rendered in an unsettling, deep baritone by Ricky Murray, who joined the Sun Ra Arkestra at the end of their Chicago days and likely disappeared from the band soon after this recording. The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra splits the difference between Ra’s more percussion-driven excursions (“New Day”) and music that hovers closer to jazz’s post-bop conventions (“What’s That?”, “Jet Flight”). There’s even a re-make of “Tapestry from an Asteroid”, a gorgeous Sun Ra ballad originally recorded a year or so earlier and included on the We Travel the Spaceways album.
The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra is another essential release in his massive back catalogue. Because of its time and place, it merely suggests the omniversal, avant tone scientists he and his band were on the verge of becoming. Since the 11 songs here reach out to jazz’s conventions with tracks that are tightly constructed and elegantly performed, it might come as something of a shock to anyone who knows Sun Ra only for his later, thunderous declamations from behind a cockpit of electronics or the childlike reverie of squall his horn players concocted less than a decade after this LP was recorded.
But hear The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra in its rightful place alongside his other late-Chicago period and early New York recordings, and it stands as a pivot point. At once, the record hearkens back to Sun Ra’s big band roots and his determination to create a genuine exploration of otherworldly space.