Saturday, April 2, 2016

Review of Omniverse Sun Ra

Art Yard has released a second revised and expanded edition of Hartmut Geerken's Omniverse Sun Ra.  Originally published in 1994, the first edition was a massive LP-sized paperback that almost instantly went out of print.  Besides several articles by Ra scholars, poets, and philosophers commissioned especially for the book, its key feature was a stunning array of record covers in full color. This was especially exciting because, of course, so many of the Saturn releases had blank sleeves that were individually hand-decorated by Ra and the band.

The second edition expands that selection to over 70 pages of gorgeously reproduced full-color images of album covers, record labels (including a ton of rare singles), and other Ra-related ephemera such as Saturn fliers and catalogs. The cloth-bound book itself is beautifully put together with a durable spine and an orange placeholder ribbon. It primarily reprints the essays from the original book, with new introductions from Geerken and Chris Trent. These essays are a mix of musical, biographical, and philosophical studies, among them an account from Geerken of Ra's trips to Egypt, a treatment of Ra quotes from poet Robert Lax, and an insightful study of Ra's place in culture from Chis Cutler. My favorite essay is "Sun Ra: Supersonic Sounds from Saturn," by discographer and Ra expert Robert L. Campbell. This 30-page piece remains the best single piece of writing about Ra's music, covering his entire stint on Earth and presenting a concise overview of all of the highlights (and of course there are many). This essay alone is worth the price of the book.

But its treasures do not end there. The selection of photographs is greatly expanded from that of the first edition. They come from two sources: the excellent black-and-white photos of Val Wilmer from 1966 and 1979, and photographs documenting the Arkestra's 1971 concerts in Cairo. The Wilmer prints are familiar, but never have they been reproduced with such stunning clarity. The Cairo photographs are fascinating; some of them have appeared elsewhere, but most of them are printed here for the first time.

To top all of this, the capstone of the new material for the second edition is the expanded discography by Chris Trent. Unlike the official discography by Campbell and Trent (Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra, 2nd ed.), this new one does not include the unissued live dates. But it does include all of the new releases (official and not-so-official) that have come to light since Earthly Recordings came out in 2000. This means it covers all of the Transparency CDs, the Norton LPs and CDs, the Atavistic/Corbett vs. Dempsey CDs, and the Art yard reissues, originals, and compilations. Trent gives detailed notes, with personnel and track listings, on all releases. His work is extremely helpful and is a worthy companion to Earthly Recordings. It is particularly valuable for sorting out such confusing aspects of the recorded work like the various reissues, repackaging, and new issues of the three volumes of Heliocentric Worlds, the live dates with Pharoah Sanders from 1964, the different versions of the Nothing Is 1966 tour, and the Irwin Chusid/Michael Anderson iTunes remasters and bonus tracks. There's even a special (if incomplete) section on Sun Ra remixes.

This new edition of Omniverse Sun Ra is a must-have for Ra fanatics. It's a beautiful, well-executed testimony to Ra's legacy, and will stand as an essential companion to Saturn research.

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