Sun Ra - Toward the Stars (Five/Four, 2007)
This new collection takes a close look at two pivotal years in the music of keyboardist, composer and bandleader Sun Ra. In 1955-56, Ra had started his own record label, Saturn Records, and had started to develop a stable of sympathetic musicians, some of which would stay with him for decades to come. The music here foreshadows many of the themes he would investigate throughout his career, ethnic musics, spiritualism and Afro-centrism all played a big part in the Sun Ra worldview and are all represented here in greater for lesser quantities. The interesting piano and horn voicings and the unusual tympani break give “Call for all Demons” a distinctive flavor and the percussion work also enlivens the exotic “India.” The hand-clap fueled swing of “Lullaby for Realville” and “Kingdon of Not” shows the Ra band engaging in some of the heart on its sleeve righteous jazz of akin to the Mingus bands that produced Blues and Roots and Ah-Um. Ra's classic ode to Chicago “El is a Sound of Joy” starts out as a ballad here, before moving gracefully to mid-tempo swing. In fact, swing is the primary element here. Mainstream jazz who may have shied away from Ra in the past due to his cosmic myth-making and 70's free jazz would find quite a bit to enjoy on this disc. Also wonderful is the full-throttle big band bebop of Julian Priester's “Unrack.” The only soft spots on the collection are the some recordings from rehearsals in Ra's apartment, which suffer from muddy sound. This is an interesting glimpse into the formative years of Sun Ra as a bandleader. While it may not be the perfect place for neophytes to make his acquaintance (that may best be served by the superb Jazz in Silhouette) fans of the man from Saturn will find a fascinating glimpse of Ra's early years and much to savor here.
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