Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Sun Ra - Nuclear War

Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, legal name Le Sony'r Ra; May 22, 1914 – May 30, 1993) was a prolific jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, poet and philosopher known for his "cosmic philosophy," musical compositions and performances. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama. He is a 1979 inductee of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.

"Of all the jazz musicians, Sun Ra was probably the most controversial," critic Scott Yanow said, because of Sun Ra's eclectic music and unorthodox lifestyle. Claiming that he was of the "Angel Race" and not from Earth, but from Saturn, Sun Ra developed a complex persona using "cosmic" philosophies and lyrical poetry that made him a pioneer of afrofuturism. He preached awareness and peace above all. He abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of Sun Ra (Ra being the Egyptian God of the Sun), and used several other names throughout his career, including Le Sonra and Sonny Lee. Sun Ra denied any connection with his birth name, saying "That's an imaginary person, never existed … Any name that I use other than Ra is a pseudonym."

Along with Lanquidity, Nuclear War is one of the rarest discs in Sun Ra's enormous catalog. Recorded in 1982, Nuclear War disappeared until 2001 when the Chicago-based Atavistic label made it part of their exceptional "Unheard Music Series." Originally Ra was so sure the funky dance track was a hit, he immediately took it to Columbia Records, where they immediately rejected it. Why he thought a song with the repeating chant "Nuclear War, they're talking about Nuclear War/It's a motherf***er, don't you know/if they push that button, your ass gotta go/and whatcha gonna do without your ass" would be a hit is another puzzle in the Sun Ra myth. Even with the danceability factor, without heavy censoring, the song would never be played on the radio. Severely depressed by the rejection, but still determined, Ra licensed the track to Y Records, a post-punk label out of Britain. Initially a vinyl 12" was released with "Sometimes I'm Happy" on the flip side. Two years later, Nuclear War was released as an album, but only in Italy. The remaining tracks include four originals and three standards, Ellington's "Drop Me Off in Harlem," "Sometimes I'm Happy," and "Smile." The latter two are highlights in their own right thanks to the gorgeous vocals of June Tyson.
Al Campbell

Nuclear War was recorded in 1982 for Columbia Records, which turned it down. The LP was eventually released by Italy's Y label, but it was poorly distributed; Atavistic deserves all sorts of plaudits for reissuing Nuclear War because it's one of Sun Ra's most enjoyable recordings, containing material that's both challenging and accessible.

The grooving, slow motion, call-and-response title tune contains the chant "Nuclear war/They're talking about nuclear war/It's a motherfucker, don't you know/ If they push that button /Your ass got to go." This was before protest and gangsta rap were in vogue, and not surprisingly, Columbia didn't show a lot of enthusiasm for it. The rest of the CD consists of relatively easy-to-follow pieces including Duke Ellington's "Drop Me Off in Harlem" and the standards "Sometimes I'm Happy" and "Smile."

Stimulating solos are contributed by Ra on electronic keyboards, tenorman John Gilmore, alto saxist Marshall Allen and trumpeter Walter Miller, a fine high-note man and one of very few trumpeters who was still exhibiting an obvious Dizzy Gillespie influence in 1982. The album ends with a lovely, bittersweet version of "Smile," featuring June Tyson. How great to have this one back in print.
Harvey Pekar

Consisting of 8 tracks, Nuclear War features a relatively small Arkestra of 11 musicians and singer June Tyson. The title track, a 12-inch single from 1982, repeats Sun Ra’s vocal “If they push that button, your ass gotta go – it’s a muthafucker!” Apparently the spaceman Ra was re-assessing his faith in human technolgy and therefore human nature.

Besides the popularity of the Sun Ra chant tracks, their is solid writing, arranging and soloing to be found here. He covers Duke Ellington’s “Drop Me Off In Harlem” with horns arranged straight out of the Fletcher Henderson songbook, as Sonny plays a crazy roller rink organ. June Tyson, a long time Arkestra member, may have faltered a bit in her later years, but you still feel the beauty in her voice somewhere between Billy and Sarah on “Sometimes I’m Happy” and “Smile.”

Nuclear War could have been an album of singles, and that probably was Mr. Ra’s plan. Each track (except the title track) is between 4 and 5 minutes in length, great for jukeboxes (in the hippest bar this side of Star Wars) and B-sides. The Arkestra’s final cast is all here from the tenor titan John Gilmore to altoist Marshall Allen, James Jackson, Walter Miller, Tyrone Hill, and Danny Ray Thompson. Soloists take brief and interesting solos, of note are those of John Gilmore who could have been an outsatnding leader on his own. Ra plies his quirky penchant for synthesizer and organ, exercising a shuffle blues workout on “Blue Intensity” and an off-kilter solo on “Nameless One No. 2.” Nuclear War is a marvelous treasure of a find.
Mark Corroto

A thoroughly enjoyable late period album from the Sun Ra Arkestra. The title track with its sing-speak vocals from Ra and a few bandmates is something unique, even for this eccentric group of performers. While "Nuclear War" may be the main attraction, there is a lot more to like. Much of the rest of the album is pretty mellow, with Ra mostly playing what sounds like a roller rink or baseball stadium organ. Anyone wanting to call this interstellar lounge music has probably hit it on the head. While the performances hardly aim for the stratosphere there is an energy that the Arkestra wouldn't be able to muster a few years on (compare Mayan Temples). This is just pleasant, guileless music. So if you can't appreciate the grooving sax on "Blue Intensity," June Tyson's breathy vocals on Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" (Michael Jackson's favorite song), or the gentle if slightly off-kilter big band charts sprinkled through other cuts, then, well, you might want to take your blinders off and give this another try.


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