Sun Ra

Strange Stings
Atavistic Unheard Music Series ALP263CD

Undoubtedly the strangest of the literally hundreds of strange sessions recorded by band leader/composer/keyboardist Sun Ra (1914-1993) – who insisted he was born on Saturn – is this 1966 CD. More than two-thirds of the disc consists of similarly titled pieces, “Strings Strange” and “Strange Strange” that feature his Arkestra members – who dressed in sparkling tunics and caps equally inspired by Africa and Science Fiction – performing a conducted improvisation not playing their usual reeds and brass, but using a collection of exotic and discarded string instruments Ra collected from pawn shops.

Anchored by the percussive reverberations of tempered metal, the faint rumble of tympani and log drum plus Ronnie Boykins’ thick pizzicato bass, the blurry, abrasive string plucks and shudders are more primitive, but no more atonal than similar compositions written for strings by contemporary classical composers. Additionally, while this collection of ukelins zithers, Asian lutes, violas, dutar and banduras seem to be played randomly using slack key pressure, supersonic spiccato, slurred fingering, polyphonic snaps and strokes that reverberate shards of splintered tones, further textures are added by “space vocalist” Art Jenkins’ Sprechstimme that alternately scats, gargles and warbles. Eventually, the connected tracks reach a satisfying climax as mortar-like explosions from the percussion combine with the strings’ wavering slurred fingering and double-stopped harmonics.

For further strangeness, “Door Squeak”, the CD’s newly discovered bonus track is 10½-minutes of Ra’s electric piano improvising along with literal squeaks from door hinges.

— Ken Waxman

— For Whole Note Vol. 13 #2