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ROCK

Sun Ra and his Arkestra: Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy c/w Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow; Other Planes of There; We Travel the Spaceways c/w Bad and Beautiful; Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth c/w Interstellar Low Ways; My Brother the Wind Vols II & I (Evidence CD 22036-40). The second in an admirable series of reissues is a sackful of delights. These discs are not cheap, but all but one contain two separate albums back to back, and all retain much of the beautiful cover art and add authoritative sleeve notes. Sun Ra's is not a career that can be boxed up and put away. More than 400 albums bear his name, and most are not so much rare as extinct, so it will never be possible to get more than a glimpse of what he was doing at any one time. The earliest sets, Visits Planet Earth, recorded in Chicago 1956-8, is probably the most accessible; Cosmic Tones (New York, 1963) is the weirdest. Ra's Arkestra changes name from 'Solar' to 'Myth Science' to 'Astro Infinity', and even the couple of ever-present players - Pat Patrick, who died in 1991, and John Gilmore - don't always play the same instruments. But Mr Ra's guiding light never flickers: whether he plays beefy piano, tinny Hammond or woozy moog, or just sits at the side fingering his spangled headgear, his spirit unites big-band discipline with free jazz wildness. This man occupies the same position in jazz as Captain Beefheart in rock - at once so far out and so integral that to try to spell out the lineage of his roots and influence seems vaguely insulting. Better just to lie back and enjoy his strange, dazzling music. Ben Thompson

CLASSICAL

Schnittke: Life with an Idiot. Duesing, Ringholz, Haskin/Rotterdam Philharmonic/Rostropovich (Sony S2K52495). Alfred Schnittke is such a stagey composer that his output ought to be loaded with theatre works. It isn't; and this is his first conventional opera to have reached production, in Amsterdam last year. The text, by the contemporary Russian writer Victor Erofeyev, sits in the Gogolian tradition of meaningful absurdity with three main characters - husband, wife, and the idiot (a grotesque parody of the inviolable Russian holy innocent) who invades their lives - plus brief appearances by an asylum guard and Marcel Proust. It fits the deconstructive and sardonically eclectic formal interests of Schnittke's music like a glove: rarely have notes and words been so well-matched. Rostropovich, as conductor, cellist and pianist, has the hectoring energy it takes to keep the thing alive and moving. Whether it sustains the gut-thrust of great opera I'm not sure; but there's a curiosity appeal. Michael White

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