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Sun Ra Arkestra: Swirling

Ian Patterson By

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Sun Ra Arkestra: Swirling
Though Sun Ra departed Earth in 1993, his music has continued to thrive, first under the stewardship of John Gilmore and, since 1995, by the remarkable Marshall Allen who turned 96 in May 2020. A live Arkestra show still contains many of the elements that have been present since the 1950s and '60s— color, pageantry and music boasting the entire history of jazz. There have also been some extraordinary continuities in the personnel of the band, with several members present since the 1960s or 1970s. Allen has been on board since 1957. But whereas the Arkestra under Ra remained relatively prolific as a recording unit more or less until his passing, the Arkestra post-Ra has all but ceased studio documentation. Nothing, in fact, since 1999—until now that is.

Apart from Allen's newly-penned title track—a bright-and-breezy big-band swinger, spiced by Farid Barron's bluesy tumbles and jagged pianism—the set comprises modern takes on vintage Arkestra fare. "Angels and Demons," with its broiling, mantra-like grooves, the urgent chant and riffs of the iconic "Rocket No.9" and the majestic slow-blues that is "Space Loneliness"—one of several tracks to feature vocalist Tara Middleton—were all originally recorded in a mammoth recording session in Chicago in 1960. Earlier still is a vocal version of "Sunology," from 1957's Supersonic Jazz, (Saturn), featuring Middleton in fine voice, and some lyrical trombone work from Dave Davis.

Allen's vibrant rearrangements of Ra's compositions—a rich, multi-layered weave which borrows liberally from the language of Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington—exude warmth, but with an ever-present spikey undercurrent. The lines between past and present, between bluesy swing and angular abstraction, have always been a little nebulous in Ra's music, and Allen's synthesizer-like Electronic Valve Instrument (EVI) and guitarist Dave Hotep's effects conjure psychedelic soundscapes which belong to another era or dimension.

"Seductive Fantasy" is a case in point; a wicked ostinato from baritone saxophonist Danny Ray Thompson and bassist Tyler Mitchell ignites the ensemble's brilliant tangle of order and freedom, punctuated by contrasting solos from Allen on alto saxophone, Vincent Chancey on French horn and Barron, an arresting pianist in the Ra mould. Percussionists Atakatune Stanley Morgan and Nelson Nascimento bring rootsy impulse to a truncated, though arguably even more stirring version than the sprawling, seventeen-minute original. A stripped-down "Astro Black"—sans the original version's bowed bass, rattling percussion and buzzing horns—sees Middleton reprise June Tyson's role, reciting Ra's cosmic poetry against a shimmering sci-fi backdrop brewed by Allen.

The Arkestra is more earthbound on "Unmask the Batman," a novelty single from 1974, given a stonking R&B makeover; think Fats Domino's orchestra romping through the Batman signature theme, perhaps. The Arkestra swings on "Queer Notions," an Ellington-esque tableau of lush harmony and jungle wilds. "Door of the Cosmos," which flits between small and large ensemble mode, sees the irrepressible Allen on EVI and James Stewart on tenor saxophone tear it up on an unabashedly uplifting finale.

Sadly, the Sun Ra Arkestra's first studio album in over two decades is also the last for veterans Danny Ray Thompson and Atakatune Stanley Morgan, both of whom have since passed away. Their departures, however, open doors to the Arkestra's cosmos for newcomers, as it must be with any institution of such a venerable age. But, if the vital, celebratory Swirling is anything to go by, they leave the Sun Ra Arkestra in remarkably rude health.

Track Listing

Satellites Are Spinning / Lights On A Satellite; Seductive Fantasy; Swirling; Angels And Demons At Play; Sea Of Darkness / Darkness; Rocket No. 9; Astro Black; Infinity / I’ll Wait For You; Sunology; Door Of The Cosmos / Say; Queer Notions (2xLP bonus track).

Personnel

Marshall Allen: saxophone, alto; Knoel Scott: saxophone, alto; James Stewart: saxophone, tenor; Danny Ray Thompson: saxophone, baritone; Michael Ray: trumpet; Cecil Brooks: trumpet; Vincent Chancey: french horn; Dave Davis: trombone; Farid Barron: piano; Dave Hotep: guitar; Tyler Mitchell: bass, acoustic; Wayne Anthony Smith Jr: drums; Elson Nascimento: percussion; Stanley Atakatune Morgan: percussion; Tara Middleton: voice / vocals.

Album information

Title: Swirling | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Strut Records

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