(GrainBin Music, CD)
Magic City's debut release, The June Book, is a tribute to Sun Ra Arkestra vocalist June Tyson -- "a cosmic emissary and true member of the angel race," according to the central Vermont-based band. While Tyson's divine birthright may be in question, Magic City's interpretations of Sun Ra's compositions are undoubtedly celestial.
The June Book achieves an otherworldly vibe right from the start. Featuring the dusky voice of Miriam Bernardo as well as the unorthodox guitar playing of Michael Chorney, the disc has a sonic luminescence. Fleshed out by Robinson Morse on trombone and Polly Vanderputen on cello, Magic City deliver seductive lullabies with an avant-garde sensibility.
Sun Ra's reputation as an eccentric jazz outsider has a tendency to obscure his considerable harmonic gifts. Claiming he was sent to Earth to save humanity through a mix of music and metaphysics, the composer/bandleader had many terrestrials scratching their heads. Never without his cosmic costume, Ra made the outer limits his permanent residence.
Stripped of spectacle, Magic City lay bare the core of Sun Ra's compositions, reimagining his tunes as sparse chamber pieces. The softly melancholic "They'll Come Back" features beautiful trombone and cello lines that weave in and out of Chorney's clipped guitar chords. Bernardo's vocals remain gorgeously earthy, even if the subject matter is a little spacey.
"Satellites are Spinning" is positively hypnotic, with Chorney's guitar taking on a percussive attack. His gamelan-like tones lay the foundation for a terrific trombone solo by Morse, and Vanderputen's cello lines have teeth. Like much of Sun Ra's work, universal harmony is the theme of this cut. With Bernardo singing, such utopian dreams seem perfectly attainable.
"I'll Wait for You" recasts the traditional jazz ballad as a pan-dimensional torch song. "In some far place/Many light years in space, I'll wait for you/Where human feet have never trod/I'll wait for you," Bernardo sings over the track's soft sashay. Cascading harmonies drift along like the dust from some far-off nebula, as the arrangement contracts and expands.
For those unfamiliar with Sun Ra's work, The June Book might be a great place to start. Magic City's take on the composer's tunes retain enough of his extraterrestrial attitude to be authentic, but have a soothingly down-to-earth quality. These inventive interpretations would sound great in any corner of the galaxy.