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Sun Ra - Strange Strings

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Artist: Sun Ra

Album: Strange Strings

Label: Unheard Music Series

Review date: Aug. 29, 2007

Committed Saturnians and improv freaks alike have waited a long, long time for this record to be reissued, one of the holiest of grails buried in the secret places in Le Sun Ra’s cosmic freakscape. From 1966, this dates from one of the Arkestra’s most productive and widely documented periods, when an occasional flirtation with major label interest was nothing more, nothing less than another opportunity for Ra and his committed communitarians to transcribe the music of the spheres as the great keyboardist/conceptualist understood it.

Several of Strange Strings’ most prominent features – the cloudy aura, the rolling tympani, and the eldritch reed solos (from John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, and Robert Cummings) for example – will be well familiar to listeners. But this is Ra’s “Aventures,” his “Pithoprakta,” his “Black Angels” all in one, a new exploration of and essay in timbre, where the idiomatic properties of a single family of instruments is situated within a wholly unfamiliar context, where weird worlds of sound open up before us.

The opening “Worlds Approaching” is a spooky fanfare for alien wisdom, interstellar mental power, and earthly esotericism, Ra pounding the clavinet in the middle of a forest of percussion, as faintly audible flutes and strings tease your earholes – during the rests, they are fully audible, sawing away in anticipation of Braxton’s Ghost Trance Musics still three decades off. “Strings Strange” is bathed in still more pools of reverb, with plenty of prickly arco deployed on strings both familiar and, well, strange. (It’s not in fact clear what instruments are being used, since many Arkestra members are simply credited with “electronic strings.”) Thilan Aldridge murmurs ethereally (credited with “Space Voice”) as a beat-up pawn shop violin (or an erhu perhaps) plinks away on the side.

The title track has some wild elephantine brass, ululating as if underwater, while Boykins moans in the bass register to offset the buzzing violins and bowed allsorts. The textures are just incredible, buoyed by a fairly subtle sense of dynamics (something too many folks fail to associate with Ra’s often rich music), and the piece has a superb form, coursing through deft combinations of instrumental sub-groups, either blanketed by reverb and percussion or starkly exposed. As fantastic as it is, perhaps the coolest thing on the record is the extra track “Door Squeak”: 10 and a half minutes of exactly that; a wonderfully nasty sound with continuo from the band. With all the Ra reissues out there, this is one to get really excited about.

By Jason Bivins

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