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Sun Ra: Exotica

Chris May By

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Spring 2018 is delivering a welcome batch of Sun Ra reissues, some of them remastered editions of existing albums, others newly put-together compilations. Among the compilations, two stand out: the previously reviewed Sun Ra Plays Gershwin (Enterplanetary Records, 2017) and now Exotica. Both are mellifluous beauties which showcase Ra's unapologetic love of a good tune. Listeners who prefer bracingly atonal Ra will need to look elsewhere.

In the jazz community, the guiltiest of guilty pleasures might well be exotica, the ambient soundtrack at countless cocktail parties across suburban America in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is the groove that dare not speak its name. But put aside the demographic prejudices: with hindsight, exotica was an undeniably outward-looking phenomenon, a precursor of the world-music movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Like world music, which was fuelled by jetplane-enabled back-pack travel to previously out-of-reach countries, exotica followed an earlier expansion of air-routes, one which offered middle-class Americans holidays in previously unaffordable destinations across the Pacific, South America and South Asia.

Ra's excursions into what might be called off-planet exotica were not, in truth, so very different from those taken by straight-ahead exotica's leading composers and bandleaders, Martin Denny and Les Baxter. There is more improvisation in Ra's forays, and the strangeness is dialled up a notch or two, but strong melodies, rich textures and often wildly imaginative instrumentation are still the name of the game.

Exotica has 25 tracks, all but one of them recorded between 1957 and 1963, exotica's golden age. A few are relatively well known, such as "Ancient Aiethiopia" and "New Horizons" from the widely celebrated Saturn albums Jazz In Silhouette (1959) and We Travel The Spaceways (1967). Others may be less familiar, and are taken from Supersonic Jazz (1957), When Sun Comes Out (1963), Fate In A Pleasant Mood (1965), Angels And Demons At Play (1965), Secrets Of The Sun (circa 1965), Interstellar Low Ways (1966), Nubians Of Plutonia (1966), Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth (1967) and Space Probe (1974), all originally released on Saturn. And, a real bonus, there are six previously unreleased tracks, of which the title of one 1962 recording says it all. Step forward "Cha-Cha In Outer Space."

Among the Ra scholars whose researches are acknowledged in the sleeve credits are Chris Trent and Peter Dennett, respectively co-author and publisher of the definitive Ra study, Omniverse Sun Ra (Art Yard, 2015).

Exotica was released as a double CD in November 2017, and made available as a lavishly packaged triple-LP in February 2018.

Track Listing: Kingdom Of Thunder; Spaces Mates; Star Bright; The Nile Part 1; Eve; Tiny Pyramids; The Lady With the Golden Stockings; Paradise; New Horizons; Portrait Of The Living Sky; India; Ancient Aiethiopia; Planet Earth; April In Paris; Island In The Sun; Africa; Friendly Galaxy; Interstellar Low Ways; The Conversion Of J.P.; Cha-Cha In Outer Space; Brazilian Sun; Lights On A Satellite; Somewhere In Space; Spontaneous Simplicity; Overtones Of China.

Personnel: Sun Ra: keyboards, percussion, string instruments with various personnels.

Title: Exotica | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Modern Harmonic

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