Sun Ra
The Singles

Even in death space-traveling jazz man Sun Ra makes listeners choose sides. His admirers, whose numbers include Phish, Michael Ray's Cosmic Krewe, and George Clinton's P-Funk mob, remember him as a madcap entertainer and an eccentric, creative genius. Many avid jazz buffs give Ra his due as a major figure in jazz history, even as they roll their eyes at the memory of his bargain-basement space suits and his bizarre Egyptian cosmology. Meanwhile still other jazzbos simply cringe upon hearing any one of his names, be it Sun Ra, Le Sony'r Ra, or his original cognomen Herman "Sonny" Blount. For those of you who come fresh to Ra's legacy, be prepared for something otherworldly.

For the double disc The Singles, compiler/Evidence pooh-bah Jerry Gordon spent three years tracking down serious Ra record collectors around the world to gather more than four dozen 45s waxed for Ra and Alton Abraham's Saturn label between 1954 and 1982. Gordon's sound engineers used the Sonic Solutions NoNoise System to clean up the fidelity of the old master tapes and singles, giving the music a luminosity absent from the original discs.

On some of the older tracks, Ra contributes piano and arrangements to Chicago-based doo-wop outfits such as the Nu Sounds, Mr. V's Five Joys, and his own Cosmic Rays. Ra also worked in the Fifties with a wild singer named Yochanan on seven roll-in-the-gutter outer-space R&B numbers, including "Muck Muck (Matt Matt)" and "The Sun Man Speaks," on which Yochanan becomes Jesus Christ while Ra explores his electric organ and the backing combo riffs to the high heavens. Ra's famed Arkestra turns up on several other songs from the era; their strange voices (e.g., simulating an Alpine horn blowing across moon valleys in "October") and occasional intonation problems are integral parts of the material's exotic appeal. "Saturn," while nowhere nearly as experimental as the Ra jazz then heard on his longplayers, nonetheless works up a head of bebop steam, and "State Street" swings cagily, impelled by a slow-burning artistic vision.

After moving to New York City in the early Sixties, Ra and his fine musicians (above all, the late John Gilmore on tenor sax) testified to the righteousness of the Cosmic Way; their jazz explorations fill most of Singles's second half. Ra's clavinet on the altogether eerie "Blues on Planet Mars" belongs to a distant galaxy, and the controlled chaos of the live "Journey to Saturn," featuring Ra on Mini-Moog and Rocksichord, gives you an idea of how the Astro-Galactic Infinity Arkestra mesmerized and abducted audiences during the early Seventies. "Mayan Temple" enthralls with Marshall Allen's Coltrane-esque oboe hovering over Ra's electronic keyboards, while "Quest" has Ra offering dramatic cryptograms on solo acoustic piano. Perhaps most startling of all, really, are the four Ra-sponsored straight Chicago blues tunes credited to Lacy Gibson. That's Buddy Guy adding rhythm guitar to "I'm Gonna Unmask the Batman," a parody of the Batman TV theme.

Pow! Zap! Indeed, as Ra was fond of saying, space is the place.
-- Frank-John Hadley

Fashion Nugget

An album that defies labels is always a pleasure to hear and, on that front, Cake has yet to disappoint. Like 1994's Motorcade of Generosity, Fashion Nugget is stocked with a bizarre assortment of sonic yummies, served up fast and furious by this blossoming Sacramento quintet.

"Frank Sinatra" opens with a rumba backbeat, allowing organ fills, tinkling guitar, and trumpet flourishes to steer the somber melody into lounge territory. "The Distance" is a hilarious half-rap that describes the descent into madness of a narcissistic race-car driver. "Friend Is a Four-Letter Word" wallows in tuneful lament, unspooling with all the creepy plangency of a Carpenters hit. The camp-country stomper "Stickshifts and Safetybelts" zips along on twangy guitar and a two-step cadence, while the Willie Nelson cover "Sad Songs and Waltzes" is all steel guitar and hangdog grace.

The disc's designated corker is an inspired cover of Gloria Gaynor's motivational anthem "I Will Survive," a six-minute tour de force that allows guitarist Greg Brown and trumpeter Vincent di Fiore to riff on the fat melody before building to a splendidly spastic orchestral finish. While the music rips and snorts, vocalist John McCrea takes the opposite tack, offering a monotone delivery as understated as Gaynor's original was ostentatious. Don't ask me how, but it works.

Other treats? The twisted hip-hop pop of "Nugget," and, of course, "Race Car Ya-Yas," a cacophonous interlude that sounds a lot like the soundtrack that would accompany a drug-induced hallucination sequence on Dragnet. God, these guys are good.

-- Steven Almond

Various Artists
Classical Music for Dummies
(IDG Books/EMI Classics)

It all began with computer books like DOS for Dummies. Now publisher IDG is going deeper into the dummy concept with Red Wine for Dummies, Dogs for Dummies, and even a projected Sex for Dummies. (I don't know why -- stupid people seem to have little trouble getting laid.) A new project links IDG with classical recording giant EMI Classics to present "the fun and easy way to explore the world of classical music." They're doing it through midpriced interactive "enhanced CDs." Pop them into your CD player and music comes out; pop them in your computer and they add composer bios, musical scores, and explanations of obscure terminology. Each title is devoted to a single composer, and 24 titles have already been released, with more on the way. No longer do you need to be a moron about Mahler or a dimwit about Debussy!

Of course, CD-ROM titles are popular in the mass market, but is the enhanced CD a viable medium for music appreciation or is it just a fad? I suspect the latter (although I thought CDs would never catch on). Home computers typically have lousy sound, and compatibility with some CD-ROM drives continues to be an issue. Furthermore, playing on the computer and listening to music are two very different cognitive activities, at least for me. But you don't have to be a techno-nerd or even own a computer to enjoy these discs, because EMI Classics has filled them with performances from its tremendous back catalogue. Even experienced collectors occasionally like a well-selected "greatest hits" compilation as they drive down I-95 or do the dishes. Now, if only IDG could explain rap music to me.

-- Raymond Tuttle

Various Artists
Kool DJ Red Alert Presents ...
(Next Plateau)

Despite the blatant commercialization of hip-hop culture, the mix tape has remained the underground medium of choice for hip-hop in the Nineties. For ten bones, you get anywhere from 60 to 120 minutes of hip-hop, served straight up or cut with your choice of dancehall or R&B (either current or old-school). While the sound quality isn't always state of the art, the DJ usually makes up for it with his or her turntable creativity. A skilled selector with access to advance product and -- even better -- artists for cameo appearances can make some steady dough selling mix tapes.

This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by major and indie labels. It was only a matter of time before they would sort out the licensing nightmares and "legitimize" the practice, pressing their own mix tapes with world-class DJs and, more important, quality sound. Kool DJ Red Alert Presents ... is the second such effort to hit stores this year, following Funkmaster Flex's debut for Loud/RCA.

Working late nights back in the Eighties on the now-defunct WRKS in New York City, I can remember DJ Red Alert going toe-to-toe on the airwaves with fellow turntable legend Marley Marl, breaking new records and new ground every weekend. At school, at the bus stop, at ball games, at football practice -- anywhere kids congregated -- tapes of his shows were played at maximum volume by whoever had the box. Such was the golden age of hip-hop in NYC.

Red Alert is still spinning records in the Big Apple, now a little to the left on the dial at Hot 97. Packaging up the Nineties Red Alert experience, Presents ... is a hip-hop/R&B compendium of recent and current hits blended seamlessly together for 52 nonstop minutes. And while the music has changed a whole lot in ten or so years, the man's style and knack for the dope segue have aged like rare wax. Bad Boy and Death Row are among the labels represented here, where hip-hop music is presented in its only truly acceptable format: the mix.

-- Jesse Ballinger


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