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The Lead Review

Angels & Demons At Play: Swirling By The Sun Ra Arkestra
Peter Margasak , October 29th, 2020 09:06

The first new album in decades from the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra is a welcome addition to the group’s legacy, finds Peter Margasak

When pianist, composer, bandleader, proto-Afrofuturist, and philosopher, Herman “Sonny” Blount died in 1993 his Arkestra essentially became a repertory band. Three years earlier the bandleader had suffered a stroke, which limited his mobility and energy, but he continued composing and performing at a prolific rate. As someone lucky enough to have seen numerous concerts by the band before his stroke and several afterwards, the difference was notable.

The Arkestra’s long-time vocalist June Tyson passed away in 1992, further sapping the band’s ebullient vitality, yet under Sun Ra they still remained one of the greatest live groups I’ve ever seen. Tenor saxophonist John Gilmore took the reins until he joined Ra in the celestial afterlife two years later, and, indeed, the Arkestra increasingly felt like a ghost band in more ways than one. Alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, now a perky 96, was the next man up, and he’s continued to lead the Arkestra ever since.

Swirling is the first new studio album from the once insanely fertile Arkestra in two decades, and apart from Allen’s title composition, the material has been in the group’s songbook for decades. Spoiled by encounters with the Arkestra under Ra’s leadership, I nonetheless enjoyed seeing the band live over the years, but something changed in 2012 when vocalist Tara Middleton, wife of the inventive Arkestra guitarist Dave Hotep, came aboard. As colourful and entertaining as the group remained, with Allen’s ecstatic flurries, fits of literal acrobatics by fellow alto saxophonist Knoel Scott, and joyful parades through the audiences that still flocked to see them, the Arkestra lacked the magnetic, charismatic focal point that Ra and Tyson once provided. Middleton, who cuts a striking presence amid the sequined membership and doubles as a violinist, is also a sublimely gifted singer, and she quickly became an anchor of the band’s performances. The rest of the Arkestra continued their performative stunts, but Middleton’s dynamic presence cohered the sideshow antics back into the focused circus of yore.

The unceasing deluge of Sun Ra reissues and archival digs since his death speaks to the undiminished appeal, prescience, and variety of the work the Arkestra created together. The band has thrived as a live attraction despite adding little to its repertoire, but it has developed its own distinctive wrinkles of the vintage sound, so it’s been overdue to record the band’s current iteration. The deaths of baritone saxophonist Danny Ray Thompson and conga player Stanley “Atakatune” Morgan since the album was recorded between April-June 2018 only makes this documentation more valuable.

While Swirling doesn’t offer any substantial retrenchment of the Arkestra’s singular melding of big band tradition, free jazz, and sonic experimentation, it’s nonetheless a superb portrait of where Allen has taken the band, with his skilful arrangements of both familiar and more obscure tunes from the old book, and performances that are spirited, deeply pleasing, and evidence of renewed vigour. The band includes plenty of seasoned vets like French hornist Vincent Chancey, bassist Tyler Mitchell, and trumpeter Michael Ray.

No group in jazz history has embodied the communal spirit like the Arkestra. Most of its members have spent time living in the group's residential headquarters in Philly’s Germantown neighbourhood – the Arkestra’s base for over four decades – and they’ve bought in to the band’s collective spirit, and its hard-core fans are the closest thing jazz has to Deadheads. In a way, the new album is a gift to the faithful and new adherents, beautifully conveying the vibe and orchestral depth of the Arkestra’s recent live shows.

Allen’s arrangements tilt towards the horns rather than piano that structured the tunes during Ra’s leadership, and that recasts classics like ‘Angels and Demons at Play’ and ‘Lights on a Satellite’ with a sonic profile that toggles between lush, gauzy, and spectral. The group’s current pianist Farid Barron, who, incongruously, was once a member of the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, acquits himself beautifully, particularly on the title track, even though he solos only a few times throughout the album’s epic ninety-minute duration. But his involvement underlines the fact that despite the Arkestra’s celebrated idiosyncrasies and frequent flouting of orthodoxy, its musicians have always been seriously skilled players firmly grounded in the full diapason of jazz history.

One of the joys of Arkestra performances was the way in which its original material blended with standards in a manner evincing a non-hierarchical holism. Ra, after all, worked with big band pioneer Fletcher Henderson in the late-1940s. In fact, ‘Queer Notions’, which is featured here, was recorded by Henderson’s band back in 1933, with Coleman Hawkins on tenor. While the Arkestra had periods of intense experimentation, the group would also devote itself to classic big band verities throughout its entire run, so those that complain about those conventions turning up here are missing the point.

Allen plays lots of his trusty EVI (electric valve instrument) here, making it sound better than I ever remember hearing it, and although no synthesizers are listed in the credits, electronic squiggles and swoops snake through many of the brassy tunes, with an analog squelchiness that feels surprisingly fresh within the chattering, conversational horn accents and dissonant harmonies that consistently reject conventional big band charts. Middleton turns up on almost every track, sometimes joining group chants, as on ‘Rocket No. 9’, taking the lead as on a remarkable version of ‘Astro Black’, where her voice is only complemented by slaloming electronics, or belting out the blues on the exuberant ‘Space Loneliness’. She’s absent on the album’s sole misstep, a new version of the 1974 novelty single ‘Unmask the Batman’, originally an amusing trifle that used the superhero’s TV show theme as a point of departure, with avuncular off-the-cuff lyrics from Sam Bankhead, while here the trademark lick cycles to nowhere.

While Strut has previously released some terrific collections that function as valuable primers for Sun Ra’s omniverse, Swirling does a pretty nice job as an introduction to newbies even if it lacks the atmospheric crackle of the original material. But I’m happy this album exists, if only to demonstrate the Arkestra’s ongoing merit, adding a new layer of nuance and delight to its vaunted and accruing legacy.