Straying into unfamiliar territory is always daunting, even more so, in outer space. A reader sent me questions about Saturn originals, in particular, Sun Ra’s 1966 album, The Magic City. A gap in my knowledge, I couldn’t answer. So I was determined to fill that gap, hence this Beginners Guide to Saturn, the Beginner in question being me. Let’s see where it goes, climb on board, strap in, ignition, Houston, we have lift off, destination Saturn!
Say again, Houston, how many light years to Saturn?
Sun Ra’s conceptual master-stroke was to fuse an impossibly distant Past (ancient Egypt 3000 BC) with an impossibly distant Future (interplanetary space travel), offering a temporary escape from the generally awful Present. All for the price of an entry ticket, now that is an attractive proposition
The costumes referenced the Past, the musical themes spoke to the Future, the economic driving force was Arkestra live performance, which brought the two together. Selling records after a gig was supplementary, and making hit records not on the agenda. The record collector has to decide what, if anything, is collectable, and the audiophile, what is listenable. Not everything is.
I had the pleasure of seeing the Arkestra, led by Marshall Allen, with a couple of friends a few years ago at East London’s Passing Clouds, Dalston – live photos with my new 50mm f1.2 lens on its first outing. A memorable theatrical performance it was, most memorable for the gap of may be four decades between us and the bulk of the audience. I think we were just a few years below Marshall Allen’s graduation class, though it was great to see so many youngsters enjoying the vibe.
Marshall’s 95th Birthday celebration party:
Original Saturn records have always been a non-starter for me, scarce and expensive, I have only ever seen one in the flesh. They have no audiophile dimension that I know of. Who was the engineer, and the recording studio? I have now discovered a name, more on that later.
The Saturn label was founded in 1957 by Alton Abraham, who managed much of the business side of Sun Ra, along with his brother Artis, who founded Saturn Research to record and distribute the albums. Over the following forty years, hundreds of group names were assigned to the Sun Ra Arkestra collective, permutations of Sun Ra and his …Intergalactic Astro-Infinity Solar Myth-Science Research Blue Universe … Arkestra. Even members of the collective had their names changed: one time Arkestra member Farrell Sanders had his name changed to the more imperial Pharoah Sanders.
The Saturn label was not a record label in the conventional sense, merely a vehicle for Sun Ra and the Arkestra. In a permanent state of change, its only consistency was its relentless inconsistency and inventiveness. The label had only two addresses in it’s history (a Chicago PO box, and Philadelphia, PA). There are no INC. and ® signposts, few typesetting clues, often no artist or recording credits, and sometimes, merely a hand-painted paper label.
Sun Ra recordings are also found on many conventional record labels, including Transition, Delmark, Savoy, Impulse, ESP-Disk, Black Saint, Black Lion, Hut Hut, Enja, Soul Note, Rounder, and no doubt many more. Being a Sun Ra collector is a lifetime enterprise. My advice is to start young if you hope to make a dent in it.
To make best use of a few days of enforced home-quarantine after travel – no, not space travel – I decided to get up to speed with Saturn and Sun Ra. Not the philosophical and cultural musings amply covered by other writers, but simply the Record Collector perspective. When confronted by a Saturn album, now there is somewhere to begin, though it is just an opening gambit, corrections and contribution welcome
Historical Context: Sun Ra’s musical career is broadly divided by time and geography (Wiki-links)
The Sun Ra discography is “one of the largest discographies in music history” (Wiki) said to include 150 – 200 albums. Peter Campbell’s definitive discography (2nd Edition) amounts to 850 pages. I haven’t found a source for Saturn labelography. Saturn is often conspicuously omitted as a label altogether to avoid its mind-boggling complexity. Making good the deficit, this Guide attempts to cover the main Saturn labels from the early years through to its effective disappearance in the mid ’80s.
This Saturn label chronology is based on the appearance of the label on the first release of each Sun Ra title, in year of release order. The first edition of each Sun Ra album has a unique label, but also has some commonalities with other titles issued around the same time – similar design elements, typography and logo design, enough to distinguish first editions from reissues some years later. The most significant titles have up to twenty reissues listed, but there is always a first.
Saturn labels follow no logical progression apart from a few briefly recurring themes and graphic elements, even then, part company at a moment’s notice to plain text and randomly-chosen colour. No corporate address, registration mark discipline: free jazz perhaps, free graphic design, definitely.
A SATURN RECORDS LABELOGRAPHY
Saturn 7″ singles, 1955-6
The first appearance of the Saturn label was in 1955, with a handful of 7″ Sun Ra singles over the following year or two, before the first LP in 1957. What is interesting is the complete lack of design-continuity. The label name SATURN is set in a different font every time, the textual information differs on each single, the Rights are assigned to Enteplan or Enterplan, even the spelling fluctuates between ARKISTRA and ARKESTRA. In short, design chaos. It didn’t matter.
The first LP, Super-sonic Jazz (H7OP0216) includes several tracks released on the singles. The earliest label is gold, deep groove, SATURN in vertical text on left outer circumference. Reference to early form of his name, in French, “Le Sun Ra”,. later merely “Sun Ra”. First black text, then introducing red.
Deep groove, simple text, mixed serif and sans-serif fonts. No copyright date assertion, but the Publisher always Enterplan – Enterplanetary Koncepts.
Deep groove, which was fast disappearing at the time. Introducing a new Saturn logo, in a distinctive Lateral Incised NF Font. Got to love the descriptive precision of typographic design: one side has been cut open. Didn’t last long in use, With Saturn design is disposable item.
Saturn circa 1965
Simple text typesetting appears at random. Note the large pressing die around the spindle hole, which it seems is present on around half of these vintage pressings.
White label/ black text,also other colours, Saturn logo: Extruded/ Shadowed Outline Font. Magic City, critically acclaimed by some as the high-point of Sun Ra titles. There is one common thread with many of these earlier pressings, the large central die impression on many of them, Perhaps someone knows this characteristic pressing die mark.
Discogs priceless Forum on common deadwax etchings turns up Indiana cutting engineer Bud Pressner, perfect match.
Bud Pressner, tenor saxophone and clarinet player, mastering and cutting engineer, owner-operator of Bud Pressner Music & Recording Service Studio and pressing plant based in Gary, Indiana. Pessner looks an unlikely denizen of Saturn, but who knows.
Some decades later, Pessner was dubbed godfather of Chicago House “music”, which in the ’80s caused lots of people to jump up and down, all night. According to insiders, his work for the Trax label was because “he was cheap and fast”. Sounds like two good reasons why Sun Ra might have used him.
Red label/ silver/white and gold text, Saturn logo: Inverted Shadowed Outline Font No deep groove.
Saturn logo in Lateral Incised NY font at bottom of label
Having been been in constant flux for a decade, Saturn sudenly found some consistency with a new Ankh logo. The Ankh, a cross with a teardrop top, is an ancient Egyptian symbol, “Keys Of Life”. It is placed in front of sun-ray radial black lines.The Ankh and radial sun-rays logo first appears on the Saturn label in 1969.
The record label name SATURN returned to the vertical text format of the original 1957-9 label, set on the outer left circumference, but now with prefix EL next to the logo, EL SATURN. It is not the hispanic El as in El Toro. The EL is a reference in medieval astrology to planentary deities and Saturn’s place in ancient cosmology. This is not just any old Saturn, this is new EL SATURN…
The Ankh and radial sunrays logo remained in use for almost a decade, until around 1978. Below are a selection from the Ankh label EL SATURN decade in no particular order. Reissues are mixed in among new titles. It is the nearest Saturn got to a consistent label design.
At around the same time as the Ankh symbol label, another reference to ancient Egyptian mythology was introduced by Sun Ra, keeping up the mythic pressure, the THOTH label. Thoth was an ancient Egyptian deity, the god of wisdom, writing, hieroglyphs, science, magic, art, judgment, and the dead. Sounds like my kind of deity. Thoth was often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis.
In case you should bump in to him. Hey Thoth, how’s it going? I Iike the..um..beak, it suits you.Like the loin cloth – Aten Primark? You’re kidding me.
Note: Thoth is holding a spear with an ibis head in one hand, dangling an ankh with the other.
Circa 1978+ :Crayon Art
Dozens of titles, each title with unique designs. Members of the band apparently contributed some of the artwork. Allegedly many were pressed in small quantities to be sold to audiences at the end of concerts.(That is certainly what happened at the end of my Dalston performance, a small case of Sun Ra CDs, “which the band didn’t want to take home”)
The ancient civilisation of Egypt dates back to 3000 BC, effectively a blank canvas for creative spiritual and mystical hokum, hieroglyphs, pyramids, Saturn’s rings.
The label address is now 5256 Monton Street, Philadelphia.PA 19144.
Another Ancient Egyptian symbol appears, the Eye of Horus, a symbol of protection, royal power and good health – I could do with some of that.
In 1990 Sun Ra suffered a stroke, but kept composing, performing, and leading the Arkestra. When he became too ill to perform and tour, he appointed Gilmore to lead the Arkestra. Sun Ra died in hospital in 1993, age 79, his footstone reading “Herman Sonny Blount aka Le Sony’r Ra” the name he changed legally to in 1952.
His most endearing characteristic was that as an artist he never strayed from his lifelong adopted persona, not living the double life of an actor and performer, for all intents and purposes, he was Sun Ra.
Collector’s Footnote: Saturn/ Sun Ra Reissues
If Saturn original pressings are not your aspiration, reissues are the only accessible way forward, and there are many of these available, and the sound is typically CD quality, which is likely where they came from.
The reissue of Sun Ra recordings has been taken on by dozens of other labels reissuing earlier titles. The UK record company Art Yard has made an industry in Sun Ra reissues, and Evidence in PA.
Possibly one vintage vinyl issue to look out for is the two volumes Live at The Fondation Maeght, St Paul de Vence, France, recorded in 1970, and issued on the French Shandar label. Though I have not heard this, I have the Cecil Taylor (with Sam Rivers) recorded at the same French art gallery, and it’s a great recording and good pressing.
The same can not be said of the early ’70s ABC Impulse! reissues. Despite the strong alternative cover art, the sound quality is very poor. I bought several in quick succession before the disappointment hit home.
Wiki: A batch of the most significant recordings were licensed to Impulse! Records in the mid-1970s. They were not as successful as hoped, and were deleted from the Impulse catalog.
Engineering by Ed Michel and Baker Bigsby is good credentials, but the sound does not live up to the cover art, thin gruel, lo-fi. May be it is the original recordings, wierdness and audiophilia don’t mix, or we have been spoiled by all the really good stuff, our expectations are unrealistic.
Last word to Wiki
As is the case with an artist whose output is so extensive, there is quite a bit of debate regarding Sun Ra’s “best” albums. Of all these recordings, many critics and enthusiasts feel that the 1959 big band album Jazz In Silhouette is the best entry-point into his work, with The Penguin Guide to Jazz naming the album as part of a recommended “Core Collection” for any serious jazz fan and as “one of the most important jazz records since World War II.
This is the one for the First Pressing Fundamentalists (first cover circa 1957-9).
This recording contains the wonderdful track “Enlightenment” composed by Ra’s trumpet player Hobart Dotson, the tune led by Pat Patrick’s surefooted baritone opening lament, joined by by James Spaulding alto and John Gilmore tenor, Jazz In Silhouette (review, DOL reissue 2014) with the second cover (right), probably among my top ten favourite jazz tracks ever. – now there’s a challenge, a theme to return to.
I enjoy Sun Ra’s Chicago late 50’s big-band swing with a twist, which include Jazz/Sun Song, Jazz in Silhouette, and Super-Sonic Sounds, inexpensive reissues of these early years are fairly solid performers.. The ensemble is Basie and Ellington style line-ups but repurposed by a different guiding hand to a different outcome.
The later Sun Ra material is not for me, and definitely not the moog/synthesiser and electronic effects, though I am sure it has a devoted following among those who find quirky Space Jazz “otherworldliness” attractive. I concede, given the state of the world today, off-planet may be not be a bad place to be.
Sun Ra’s album Lanquidity (1978) has been attracting a lot of attention, with a recent 4xLP “Definitive Edition” box set. Organissimo has a “Sun Ra Corner” which runs to 29 pages of comments, should anyone want for even more thoughts. A helpful navigational Guide to the works of Sun Ra has been set up on Bandcamp, who are assembling an online master archive of Sun Ra LPs just a small selection of which are shown below:I There are around 80 albums in the Bandcamp archive, all tracks free to stream (or buy/download). Outside of the ’50s material, sampling a few albums at random reminded me this is really not my music, of course, you are welcome to differ.
IT’S COLLECTOR’S SHOW-TIME!
To return to the origins of this quest, the search for the first original pressing of The Magic City (1966) which has several editions.
Popsike shows where the money goes, top auction prices by label, puts our friendly deity Thoth on top of the Leaderboard at $1,000, a strong showing by White label at $750, Red Label and EL Saturn bringing up the rear at just over $400. Of course, condition is king, so auction price may not tell everything. Or indeed anything.
LJC’s Saturn label chronology suggest the sequence below, over time, though it is a close call between White and Red, as both labels were in use in 1966, and both labels have been claimed by sellers to be the original. However Thoth is definitely out of the running, bummer for a supreme deity, and cosmology-based EL Saturn. White is my odds-on favourite.
Collector’s maxim: where there is doubt, seek a promo out. The deciding call goes to the white label, on the strength of this promo, which fetched only $300 at auction, but confirms the earliest release of The Magic City to be the white label, by a nose.