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Sun Ra - Spaceship Lullaby

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Artist: Sun Ra

Album: Spaceship Lullaby

Label: Atavistic

Review date: Apr. 26, 2004

Pianist, composer and arranger Sun Ra may have functioned for years outside the jazz mainstream, but that never stopped him from documenting - recording on what seems like endless reels of magnetic tape - the varied and intensely creative efforts of his communal musical workshops. Spaceship Lullaby is even more evidence of Ra’s eclectic and visionary work, this time focusing on space age bop vocals and doo-wop exotica. Ra directs mid-1950s small group sessions and rehearsals with the smooth vocal quartet Nu Sounds and the doo-wop soul crooning of the nearly-unknown Lintels, and, later, full-blown Arkestra arrangements for the Cosmic Rays, dating from the late 1950s and 1960.

The Nu Sounds material is wonderfully disorienting: caressing Mills Brothers harmonies and energetic Babs Gonzales-style hipster bebop singing combine with the velvety vocals of Roland Williams to deliver a pre-Sputnik space travelogue on “Spaceship Lullaby”. There’s also a manic romp through the caffeine-soaked bachelor pad exuberance of “Holiday for Strings” (with the bonus of a rehearsal sequence of Ra regaling the singers). Ra’s piano accompaniment is as grand as anything Duke Ellington ever created and as jittery as anything Thelonious Monk ever played. There are even two takes of a song that was entered into a contest to find a city theme song for Chicago: “Chicago USA” is a big shouldered show tune epic of civic boosterism that’s bolstered, on the second take, by Pat Patrick’s blustery baritone sax.

The rehearsal sessions with the Lintels are slightly surreal: they contain more standards and sentimental favorites, redolent with an eerie emotional vulnerability. There’s a gospel-ish feel at times, and one of the lead vocalists almost sounds like a Smokey Robinson precursor.

The later sessions (1959-60) with the Cosmic Rays move away from the small group format. The group tackles some swinging standards, and the original numbers are rife with Sun Ra cosmology, set in full-glory Arkestra arrangements - ethnic flutes, bubbling Afro-centric percussion, and chiming electric piano, come across as being at least a decade ahead of their time. (Not to mention an odd tape splice that hints that Sun Ra may have even scooped Teo Macero!)

Indeed, there’s quite a bit of time-travel vibe throughout much of this disc; a dizzying kaleidoscope of anachronisms of futurity that add up to create a subtle sense of strangeness. There is little doubt that the man from Saturn (by way of Birmingham, Alabama and Chicago, Illinois) saw and heard many things of wonder; it’s no small miracle that so much of it was captured for us all to share.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

Other Reviews of Sun Ra

Piano Recital

Heliocentric Worlds, Vols. 1-3

Strange Strings

The Night of the Purple Moon

Disco 3000

Some Blues But Not The Kind That's Blue

Sleeping Beauty

Secrets of the Sun

Featuring Pharoah Sanders & Black Harold

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