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Friday, December 15

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Transmission
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Feature Thu Dec 06 2007

Three to hear: Chicago Jazz Labels Rock

Chicago label Atavistic has already released some dynamite Sun Ra reissues; my favorite is Nuclear War by Sun Ra & His Outer Space Arkestra (UMS222CD). But the label has really outdone itself with the unearthing of these latest two Sun Ra gems on their Unheard Music Series.

Sun Ra & His Astro-Infinity Arkestra – Strange Strings (ALP263CD), from 1966, and Sun Ra – The Night of the Purple Moon (ALP264CD), from 1970, are available now on CD for the first time.

These two reissues exemplify Ra's mastery of not only recording technology and the latest electronic keyboard instruments of his day, but also the enormous wealth of talent in his Arkestra band members. Strange Strings uses thick reverb and ring modulation to further warp and mutate the band's sounds, and Ra's deft use of Wurlitzer piano and tympani propel tracks like "Strange Strange" into the cosmos. This is a record of well-controlled, variegated textures which in the liners Ra says he uses: "[i]n painting pictures of things I know about, and things I've felt, that the world just hasn't had a chance to feel…" .The bonus track "Door Squeak" may be Ra's earliest foray into what is now called "electro-acoustic improvisation," where Ra's close-micing of a squeaking door is integrated into a bed of zithers and hand percussion.

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In fact, on "Strings Strange," Ra directs his Arkestra to jettison their regular instruments; members improvise on a variety of stringed instruments, originating across the globe. The result could have been a kitschy, world music novelty. Instead, Ra's composition uses space, amplification and density to achieve his desired effect. This track shows just how far out Ra could take us while confidently bringing us back to Earth by the end of the sonic journey. A masterpiece.

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Further evidence of Ra's technological genius is his performances on electric and electronic keyboards on the 1970 disc The Night of the Purple Moon. Atavistic's great sounding reissue comes from a dead stock, unplayed vinyl LP, since the album's master tapes were irrevocably damaged.

This disc features Ra's keyboard innovations. Sun Ra plays the Rockichord (here credited as a "Roksichord" which was an electric harpsichord, also made to good use by Frank Zappa on his 1960s Mothers of Invention albums), the Minimoog synthesizer. A few bonus tracks at the end of the disc are of Ra's home recordings with him playing Wurlitzer electric piano and Celeste.

Joined by saxophonists John Gilmore and Danny Davis, who play surprisingly more-than-competent drums, and electric bassist Stafford James on the 11 tracks from the original LP, Ra's nuanced touch on the reedy, nasal Rocksichord swings as hard as his piano playing, and his synth choices are as tasty as always. (When I caught live Ra in the 1980s he was one of the few musicians who could incorporate the ubiquitous Yamaha DX7 synthesizer in a jazz band). It's a very accessible and enjoyable addition to Ra's catalog of small-group recordings.

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Drummer/percussionist/composer Kahil El'Zabar's latest release on Chicago's Delmark Records, Transmigration (Delmark DE 576), is a massive collaboration with the Infinity Orchestra, a collective based in Bordeaux, where the Chicago-based El'Zabar has been active teaching and performing on a regular basis for many years.

The disc features El'Zabar leading the 39-member Infinity Orchestra in concert at the National Theater of Bordeaux. This date is a departure from El'Zabar's other recordings, which featured him as a performer in small group or duo or trio configurations.

El'Zabar's egoless leadership is evident as he solos on balafon only on the lengthy "Speaking in Tongues" and he features bandmates from his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble trombonist Joseph Bowie and tenor saxophonist Ernest Dawkins on the closing track "Return of the Lost Tribe". The rest of the concert highlights the many talents of the French musicians of the Infinity Orchestra which range from turntables scratching and French language rap to screaming sax solos on El'Zabar's episodic groove-laden compositions.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »

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Transmission is the music section of Gapers Block. It aims to highlight Chicago music in its many varied forms, as well as cover touring acts performing in the city. More...
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