Listen: Sun Ra’s previously unreleased 1986 experiments on a Prophet VS synth are coming to vinyl and CD

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Randall Roberts
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Sun Ra improvising on a Prophet VS synthesizer in 1986? Pump it straight into our veins.

In the summer of that year while in Boston with his band, Sun Ra splashed down in a high-tech studio called Mission Control. Among the many synths and sound generators he approached was a newly released Prophet VS (“Vector Synthesizer”). The programmable digital keyboard, created by genius electronic synthesist Dave Smith, was remarkably sophisticated. Ra took to it and started playing. A recording of that session, called Prophet, will see release in December.

You can thank gravity, the force of the cosmos and the magnetic field that a studio engineer as able to hit record, capturing for posterity the Space Traveler’s first experience with this particular synthetic future. Not that Ra was inexperienced. From an early age, the artist and composer took to new musical technology. Notes Ra biographer John Szwed in Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra, the composer “kept up with new developments in music technology, especially those involving electricity, and dreamed of the possibilities of composing for instruments with new musical timbres.

Writes John Morrison in an illuminating 2020 overview for Reverb, as a teen in segregated 1930s Birmingham, Alabama, Ra (then known by his terrestrial name, Herman “Sonny” Blount), frequented the Forbes Piano Company, a music store that rejected segregation.

In fact, the store’s owner encouraged young Sonny’s curiosity, writes Szwed: “Knowing this interest in new keyboard inventions, Forbes loaned Sonny a celeste-a keyboard whose hammers strike metal bars instead of strings and produces a delicate, ringing tone. And when the Hammond Solovox-a small add-on electric keyboard-first appeared in 1939, Sonny was among the first to buy it.”

When he transformed into Sun Ra, his experiments continued: He recorded on instruments including the MiniMoog, Hammond Solovox, Wurlitzer Electric Piano, Hohner D6 Clavient, Gibson Kalamazoo G101 combo organ,  Crumar Mainman, RMI Rock-Si-Chord, Farfisa organ, Yamaha YC-30, Yamaha DX7 and SY77.

Explained respected Ra expert and musician Brother Cleve to Reverb, “Ra liked to overdrive the sound of his keyboards; he tended to prefer high-gain Peavey amplifiers and often a Sunn bass amp—a tube amp with a massive sound.”

Cleve produced the forthcoming release. He wrote in advance release notes that the master tapes were on the verge of disintegration when they transferred them. “We watched the oxide fly off the 2″ tapes during playback, making this our one chance to digitize before they metamorphosed into dust. Welcome to the new Sun Ra album….35+ years after it was recorded. The Omniverse has expanded once again.”

Released by Modern Harmonics, Prophet is a mesmerizing listen – or at least the 10-minute video that we’ve heard above is. It will be released on December 16 on vinyl (including a few different variants) and CD.

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