June Tyson

Saturnian Queen of the Sun Ra Arkestra

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The musical world of Sun Ra was one that demanded immersion and a willingness to surrender to the unique vision of the artist, both for the audience and for the musicians who worked alongside him. More than most bandleaders, Ra was a benevolent but absolute ruler whose concepts often overrode the musical personalities of the individuals in the Arkestra, and as a consequence the skills of longtime sidemen like John Gilmore and Marshall Allen weren't always fully appreciated by more casual observers. The same can be said of June Tyson, the vocalist who signed on with the Arkestra in 1968 and worked with Sun Ra up until her death in 1992. Tyson's role was especially demanding, as she not only had to mesh musically with an ensemble with an unusual approach to melody and song structure but she was also the mouthpiece for Ra's world view of abstract philosophy, race, and the possibilities of outer space. More than a quarter-century after her passing, Tyson's work with Sun Ra is finally given the examination it deserves with Saturnian Queen of the Sun Ra Arkestra, which brings together 56 minutes of recordings from the Arkestra's archives (five tracks are previously unreleased) with her vocals front and center. In these performances, it's easy to see that Tyson willingly put her talents at the service of Ra, yet she also fills these songs with a joy and élan that doesn't just complement the lyrics but gives them a clarity and plausibility they need (and might not have been given by other singers). On more straightforward numbers like "Outer Spaceways Incorporated" and standards like "Smile" and "Never Never Land," Tyson shows she had the chops and the instincts to have been a first-class jazz singer with any band; however, it's the more adventurous cuts like "We Travel the Spaceways," "Walking on the Moon," and "Satellites are Spinning" that demonstrate how well-suited to this music Tyson really was, easily bending her instrument to the shifting melodic structures, embracing the mystery of the lyrical broadsides, and occasionally approaching her parts less as the female singer and more as a fellow instrumentalist in full flight. June Tyson held a unique place in Sun Ra's Arkestra, as important in her way as any of his other collaborators, and she was one of Ra's most loyal acolytes for a reason -- he understood her talents and gave her the room to refine them in a way many bandleaders would not. Saturnian Queen of the Sun Ra Arkestra does right by June Tyson's massive if largely unsung legacy, and it's a useful sampler of her work as well as that of Sun Ra and the Arkestra from this period.

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