Sun Ra watchers have to be thrilled with Atavistic’s recent efforts to present rare and previously unreleased Saturnistic material. The label's first release was the Cold War-era classic Nuclear War, followed by Music From Tomorrow’s World, a compendium of two previously unreleased live sessions from the tail end of the Chicago Period. The series’ latest issue is an archeological find (all 37 unreleased tracks worth) which collects Ra’s work with several Chicago vocal groups during the mid to late 1950’s.
Taken on its own terms, Spaceship Lullaby accomplishes its goals, shedding further light on Ra’s only previously rumored work guiding various vocal collectives. As precious little aural evidence, save for two singles, has come to light, Ra’s vast universe continues to expand with this collection of fresh material. He is heard working in rehearsal settings with three ensembles: the Nu Sounds, The Lintels, and The Cosmic Rays. The sessions are loose and the sound quality is far from optimal; the selections focus on the “pop tunes of the day” – jazz standards, boogie woogie and early R&B – with varying degrees of success. The draw, though, is clearly Ra’s piano and the few tracks with the Arkestra, as the vocal groups range from neophytes to moderately talented performers.
The first seventeen tracks, as well as a second set of eight, feature Ra (with drummer Robert Barry on the first set) backing the Nu Sounds, a quartet lead by his friend Roland Williams. The highlights include the opening cut, “Spaceship Lullaby,” a swinging number with humorous, space-centric lyrics, as well as the two versions from a City of Chicago contest, “Chicago USA.” However, “Stranger In Paradise” is cosmic schmaltz at best, a description which also categorizes the second relatively rigid and forgettable set of tracks. Likewise, the commonplace doo-wop sounds of the Lintels (tracks 18-22) present Ra with essentially a collection of novices. Worth hearing, though, for Ra nuts, is the way in which Ra works with these youngsters.
The strongest tracks are the last seven, which feature Ra with the Arkestra and the Cosmic Rays. From the outset, the vocal quartet demonstrates its potential with the full band on “Africa,” although several tape splices diminish the full experience. “Somebody’s In Love” and “Black Sky & Blue Moon” present the group in a pop mode, the former featuring the Arkestra’s subtle colorations. Perhaps saving the best for last, the full Arkestra versions of “Honey” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine” are valuable, the latter featuring expressive opening words from Pat Patrick.
While Spaceship Lullaby is quite a discovery, in the end the target audience is certainly not newbies – and Ra fanatics are likely the only ones who will find lasting value here. This music exudes a perverse sense of joy and offers a welcome snapshot of both Ra’s development and the depth of his musical cosmos.
Track Listing: Spaceship Lullaby / Stranger in Paradise / Just One of Those Things / Honky Tonk / Haunted Heart / Evelyn / Black Sky & Blue Moon / Ra Coaching Roland Williams / Holiday for Strings (Ra Dynamics Demo) / Holiday for Strings / I Fall Asleep Counting My Blessings / Nice Work if You Can Get It / Somebody Loves Me / Chicago USA / Chicago USA / C'est Si Bon / Blue Moon / Baby Please Be Mine / Blue Skies / My Only Love / Foggy Day / Perfume Counter / Love Is... / Wordless Piece / I Was Wrong / Louise / St. Louis Blues / Wooden Soldier & the China Doll / Africa / Somebody's in Love / Bye Bye / Black Sky & Blue Moon / Honey / Honey (With the Arkestra) / Come Rain or Come Shine.
Personnel: Tracks 1-17: Nu Sounds: Roland Williams, Vic, John, Kalil (vocals), Sun Ra (piano), Robert Barry (drums), Pat Patrick (baritone saxophone on "Chicago USA"); Tracks 18-22: The Lintels, Sun Ra (piano); Tracks 23-30: Nu Sounds (as above), Sun Ra (piano); Tracks 31-37: The Cosmic Rays: Calvin Barron, Matt Swift, Lonnie Tolbert, unknown (vocals), Sun Ra (piano, Wurlitzer electric piano), Pat Patrick (baritone saxophone), Marshall Allen (alto saxophone, flute); James Spaulding (alto saxophone), John Gilmore (tenor saxophone), E.J. Turner (trumpet), Bebop Sam Thomas (guitar), Ronnie Boykins (bass), Jim Herndon (tympani), Robert Barry (drums).