By Daniel Margolis | Published November 2021
Many albums over the last year-and-a-half were born out of, and inspired by, the pandemic and the subsequent quarantine. But Switched On Ra came about because of an adjacent issue — the massive delays at besieged vinyl pressing plants.
Bitchin Bajas finished its new album back in May, and the Chicago-based trio, centered on multi-instrumentalist Cooper Crain, is particular about how it issues music. The band’s last album, 2017’s Bajas Fresh, was mastered at half-speed for vinyl at Abbey Road Studios in London. When Bitchin Bajas submitted its first album in four years, it was told it wouldn’t be pressed and out until June 2022.
So Bitchin Bajas searched for something else to do, and Sun Ra rose into its sights. If released digitally and manufactured on cassette, this new project could come out within months, which Crain said felt in the spirit of Sun Ra — creation as a decisive, immediate action.
Bitchin Bajas is no stranger to a cassette release — in fact, in double-cassette format, Bajas Fresh had more songs on it than its vinyl counterpart. The band is also no stranger to jazz, as Bajas member Rob Frye layers saxophone and flute over its meditative soundscapes.
Not that there’s much horn to be heard here, as the band interprets Sun Ra via another musical figure, noted synthesizer pioneer Wendy Carlos, she of Switched-On Bach fame, hence the title. The cassette’s case lists a dizzying lineup of synthesizers from Casio, Crumar, Korg, Moog, Realistic, Roland, Sequential and Yamaha, as well as Crain’s trusty Ace Tone Top 8 organ.
Moving past the tactics of the approach taken, this is a broad and deep burst across Sun Ra’s entire catalog, going as far back as the bandleader’s 1957 debut, Jazz By Sun Ra, for “A Call For All Demons,” and, moving forward, plucking gems from the early ’60s (“Moon Dance,” “We Travel The Spaceways”), late ’60s (“Outer Spaceways Incorporated”), early ’70s (“Space Is The Place”), late ’70s (“Lanquidity”) and all the way to 1990 for “Opus In Springtime” from his final album, Mayan Temples.
This is a long look into Sun Ra’s space, seen through the telescopic lens of 18 keyboards. Then, guest Jayve Montgomery adds an Akai EWI-4000 as a solo voice on a few tunes, just to get some air-blown signal in there, and this serves as a natural shout-out to the Arkestra’s Marshall Allen, a master of the electronic wind instrument. Even better, the Bajas’ Daniel Quinlivan turns in charming vocoder-treated vocals on “Outer Spaceways Incorporated” and “We Travel The Spaceways,” giving this trek through the stars a captain.
How’s it sound? Heady for sure. Sun Ra himself was no stranger to keyboards, using them very early on and throughout his career, and one imagines this commitment to keyboards as tools to execute his visions would make him smile. The band states the prominent themes of Sun Ra’s songs like his classic “Space Is The Place” but leaves plenty of room to improvise around them. Meanwhile, it makes the proceedings consistently rhythmic, admirable considering there’s not a trap-kit in sight here. Sun Ra’s 1972 album Space Is The Place, which was also recorded in Chicago, states on its packaging, “As all Marines are riflemen, all members of the Arkestra are percussionists.” Given this project, Crain, Frye and Quinlivan seem to have enlisted.