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For all the talk about his extraterrestrial origins and cosmic philosophy, Sun Ra was often a very well- grounded human being. His 1982 disc Nuclear War has an easy-groovin' feeling throughout. Ra's big hope for major label recognition ended up released on the underground Y Records insteadbut Atavistic just seized the opportunity to get Nuclear War back in print in the digital format.
The undeniable "hit" on this accessible recording is the title track opener, where Ra raps on the horror of nuclear war and concludes with a timeless question: "Now whatcha gonna do without yo ass?" (Think long and hard about that oneit's deep.) The bouncy, funky rhythms behind Ra's rapping offer a less-than-subtle irony about the subject at hand. The statement suggested by the tune: one might as well have a huge party if death might be lurking around the corner.
As the disc proceeds, it reveals a snapshot of the Arkestra of 1982. The sound ranges from funk to up-tempo swing to Nichols-like off-kilter bop. June Tyson's honeyed vocals, on about half these tracks, ease the group into a sort of advanced Ellington orchestration mode, a version of the big-band organization that made Sun Ra famous. These players lived together, they loved together, they made music together. It's obvious that each member of the Arkestra understands his role in the ensemble. A couple of these playerssaxophonists John Gilmore and Marshall Allenmake fine individual contributions, but this is clearly a group record, from start to end.
The highlights of Nuclear War are the moments of true fusion: where popular music (what would today be called funk or R&B) melds with jazz improvisation (at times on its way "out"). The action at the interface is fascinating. At no time do any of these players lose the feeling that they're standing on a shifty fulcrum between funk and jazz. As an consequence, Nuclear War has an unfortunate helping of cheese ("Celestial Love," which might almost be categorized today as smooth jazz). Nuclear War also falls a tiny bit short in sound quality, but it's certainly light years ahead in this category relative to most of Ra's difficult discography.
Overall this record is brilliant. Find me someone who doesn't get something worthwhile out of it, and I'll show you someone who might as well spend his life wearing earplugs. Nuclear War 's acessibility makes it a prime candidate for novices interested in a taste of Sun Ra's vision, and its curious funk-jazz fusion makes it a delicacy for long-time Arkestra followers. Get your ears around this disc.
Track Listing: Nuclear War; Retrospect; Drop Me Off in Harlem; Sometimes I'm Happy; Celestial Love; Blue Intensity; Nameless One No. 2; Smile.
Personnel: Sun Ra: piano, synthesizer, organ, vocals; June Tyson: vocals; John Gilmore: tenor saxophone; Marshall Allen alto saxophone, flute; Danny Ray Thompson: baritone saxophone, flute; James Jacson: bassoon, infinity drum; Walter Miller: trumpet; Tyrone Hill: trombone, vocals; Vincent Chancey: French horn; Hayes Burnett: bass; Samarai Celestial: drums; Atakatune: conga, percussion.
As a kid, my mom told me I'd like jazz. I thought she was nuts. Then I went to hear Cannonball Adderley (with Nat Adderley, George Duke, Walter Booker, Roy McCurdy and Airto) and everything changed. Yeah, mom knows best.