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Saturday, January 8, 2022

Bitchin Bajas - Switched On Ra (Drag City, 2021) ****

One of my favorite music-related memories is of an afternoon in my youth spent with my Uncle and his new hi-fi stereo system, essentially the functional and aesthetic focus of his post-divorce living space, and hearing Wendy Carlos’ Switched On Bach for the first time. No expense was spared in the assemblage of his towering shrine to sonic bedlam, and I vividly remember being bewitched by the flickering multi-colored lights and huge banks of sliders and knobs. Two large wooden cabinets set to either side of the oversized speakers projected a soft light show - some sort of color organ if web searches against a hazy recollection have served right - and were joined with an assortment of lava lamps, wave machines, etc. You get the picture. As far as my impressions of the music, I distinctly remember being put-off when told it was classical music, but then what played was completely alien to me. I was definitely just as impressed by the stereo system - which seemed sentient to a hick kid - as I was by the music. But as subsequent records from his collection were played that afternoon, mainly staples of classic rock, I also remember thinking that the stereo didn’t seem to come to life in quite the same way either. It all seemed uncharacteristically bland. A testament to the three headed monster of Bach, Carlos, and the Moog.

Anyway, as you’ve likely concluded from the title (which is obviously a nod to Carlos), Chicago’s Bitchin Bajas’ new release Switched On Ra tackles several selections from the songbook of the late Le Sony'r Ra, re-rendering some of the composer and bandleaders most significant pieces through the lense of their hypnotic post-kosmische sensibilities. Back in 2017 the Bajas served up a killer rendition of “Angels and Demons At Play” on their release Bajas Fresh, a cover that in retrospect sounds like a blueprint for the approach taken here. For fun I created a playlist of the original versions of these cuts to reference while listening and I must say that the track sequence holds up just as well with the originals. A little more about Bitchin Bajas, the group was initiated as a side project of keys wizard Cooper Crain, who also plays in the Chicago band Cave. After the release of 2010’s Tones/Zones the group expanded to a duo with Daniel Quinlivan joining as a full time member, and have been performing and recording as a trio with Rob Frye (also in Cave) since their 2015 release Transporteur, although guest musicians are still a standard practice. Another standout album from 2015 featuring the group that I feel is worth a mention is their collaboration with Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society on the album Autoimaginary, on which the two groups are so in-tune that they spend the whole album finishing each other’s sentences. Now, the Bajas aren’t jazz, at least not in the obvious sense, but they do incorporate plenty of woodwind textures and melodies into their music through Frye’s sax and flute chops, so I guess I could just as easily say they aren’t not jazz. But seriously, if you like this album - and similarly laid back groups like Natural Information Society - you can save yourself some time and money by grabbing their 2019 boxed set REBAJAS. On to the music.

The album includes plenty of Ra’s signature tunes and they do a damn good job at a seemingly impossible task: to render the music faithfully and yet somehow make it their own. On Switched On… they waste no time in tackling the iconic “Space is the Place” trading the chanted vocal melody for a stabbing synth line. Then there is a wildly spot-on version of “A Call for All Demons” followed by “Outer Spaceways Incorporated”, which is probably the best cut of the collection. The snappy tempo and skatty, optimistic vocal delivery of the original are completely subverted here, almost mournful. The vocoder line plays like an obsolete robot on a dead world warbling its ceaseless, plaintive jingle into the void: “If you find earth boring, just the same old same thing, come on sign up with Outer Spaceways, Incorporated.” The breadbasket of the album consists of deep cuts like “Moondance”, “Lanquidity”,“Opus in Springtime”, and “Island in the Sun”. Relatively simple pieces from Ra’s repertoire that work well within the Bajas formula, although I will admit that I missed the slight rubato that a lot of Ra’s music deals in and kept waiting for some of Fryes woodwinds to show up, which never did. Maybe it just didn’t buy it’s way on, hard to say. They cap off the album with “We Travel the Spaceways”, an excellent, upbeat version that again makes very effective use of the vocoder. Altogether it’s a brilliant tribute and a thoroughly enjoyable listen that I’m absolutely sure I’ll return to.


Anonymous said...

I wish they had more tracks to sample. I don't know if I can tolerate a whole album in this style.

Also, "Outer Spaceways Incorporated" is firmly stuck in my head, but I don't mind.

Ken Blanchard said...

I second the motion. Just a sample of each track would be helpful. I have loved Sun Ra for a long time. Anything that draws attention to his magnificent work is worth investing in, if it is good.

Nick said...

It’s not the same high art of the original Ra pieces by any stretch, but it’s a fun and earnest tribute in a different style. But I’d also add that it’s not like those terrible string and/or banjo tributes to heavy metal bands either (sorry not sorry), the Bajas have their own thing going. In other words, this doesn’t come off as gimmicky, at least not IMO.

Anonymous said...

For those of you who want to sample this: it is available in full on Apple Music (and possibly Spotify but I can’t check).

I listened to the first two tracks, it was quite different form what I expected, and from what I remember from Sun Ra. That might be just my perception though.

Anonymous said...

The Bandcamp page offers all the tracks