July 27, 2000
Thirteen Cosmic Standards
Atavistic ALP 120 CD
Asked once what he thought of Sun Ra's music, Funkadelic mainman George Clinton famously said: "He's out to lunch all right. The same place I eat at." Now for fanciers of these pioneer Black nationalist space travelers here's a tasty meal, courtesy of Spaceways Incorporated, that serves up several entrees from both men's oeuvre.
Now before anyone looking at the band's name fears that another Klaatu is on the scene, it should be pointed out that each member is identified on the disc. The trio is made up of two Chicagoans: multi-reedist Ken Vandermark, who seems to have as many side projects as McDonald's has hamburgers; and drummer Hamid Drake who has powered the ensembles of Peter Brötzmann and Fred Anderson among others; plus Boston-based acoustic/electric bassist Nate McBride.
Unlike jazz's neo-con crew who figure nothing can be a standard unless it was signed by Duke Ellington, plotted out by Jamey Aebersold or recorded by Miles Davis before 1965, this trio recognizes that the music is always growing and changing. As a composer on a similar level as Ellington and Charles Mingus, Ra definitely has a body of "standards" that deserves dissemination. As for Clinton, his tunes are as worthy to serve as improv springboards as anything created by Rogers & Hart or Lennon & McCartney.
In truth, it's the Ra compositions that have the edge here. Since despite its other virtues Clinton's is primarily vocal music, the Spaceways Three treat his tunes more or less the same way: as full throttle rockers, heavy on pounding, pile driver drum rhythms, electric bass backbeats and booting, this-side-of-Big-Jay-McNeeley tenor saxophone honks.
Ra's multi-faceted conceptions give the musicians more scope. Thus "Bassism" is recast as a rock-style groove tune, heavy on walking bass (what else?) and tenor saxophone runs; "Future" is enlivened with Evan Parker-like saxophone ejaculations; and Ra's biggest "hit" — "We Travel The Spaceways" — is given a mellow ballad feel with entwining clarinet and bass lines.
Now there are some who will blanch at the idea of a trio trying to replicate every nuance of the Arkestra and Funkadelic, but that's the whole point of this exercise. If jazz is to remain a living music any sort of inventive reinterpretation of its musical cannon is necessary and should be welcomed. Now if only more musicians would follow the lead of the three here.
Track Listing: 1. Tapestry From An Asteroid 2. Alice In My Fantasies/Cosmic Slop 3. Street Named Hell 4. Trash A Go Go 5. Bassism 6. Red Hot Mama/Super Stupid 7. El Is The Sound of Joy 8. Future 9. You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks/Hit It And Quit It 10. We Travel The Spaceways
Personnel: Ken Vandermark (tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet); Nate McBride (acoustic and electric bass); Hamid Drake (drums)