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Album of the Week: Tyler Mitchell Octet, 'Sun Ra's Journey Featuring Marshall Allen'

Tyler Mitchell and Marshall Allen, who teamed up for 'Sun Ra's Journey'
William Brown
Tyler Mitchell and Marshall Allen, who teamed up for 'Sun Ra's Journey'

The extraterrestrial origins of Sun Ra and his Arkestra have always been referenced with a knowing wink. The title of Sun Ra’s Journey, a rousing new album from bassist and acolyte Tyler Mitchell, references the iconic Afro-futurist’s arrival from “somewhere there” as much as it does his musical path. But most of the band’s admirers are well aware that Sun Ra was born Herman “Sonny” Blount in Birmingham, AL — on Earth, rather than his professed home planet of Saturn.

That said, the unflagging energy of 98-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen, who has led the Arkestra since 1995 and been a fixture of the ensemble since 1958, raises some doubt. Can such an indefatigable spirit really be of this world?

The truth may be out there, but in the here and now we can simply be thankful that Allen still summons his trademark alto squalls and electronic swoops with undimmed vitality. From the Arkestra’s longtime headquarters in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, he continues to guide the colorfully-garbed ensemble — on the bracing album Living Sky and in other new configurations.

William Brown

That now includes two outings with Mitchell, a one-time Arkestra member who also toured and recorded with Art Taylor’s Wailers, Jon Hendricks, and Shirley Horn, among others. His mid-‘80s tenure with the Arkestra, during the last decade of its founder’s life, yielded the albums Reflections in Blue and Hours After on Black Saint, both of which included Ra’s eccentric arrangements of standards by the likes of Irving Berlin and the Gershwins.

On last year’s Dancing Shadows, Mitchell approached the Sun Ra songbook in much the same spirit. While Ra’s catalog has often been perceived as inextricable from the context of the Arkestra, with its anarcho-cosmic boisterousness and carnivalesque trappings, Mitchell instead approached the compositions as the standards they deserve to be. He invited Allen and two fellow Arkestrans, drummer Wayne Smith and percussionist Elson Nascimento, into the studio as part of a chordless sextet with saxophonists Chris Hemingway and Nicoletta Manzini for a set of small-group reimaginings.

Members of the Tyler Mitchell Octet outside Smalls, where they recorded 'Sun Ra's Journey.'
William Brown
Members of the Tyler Mitchell Octet outside Smalls, where they recorded 'Sun Ra's Journey.'

Mitchell has slightly expanded that ensemble for his follow-up, Sun Ra’s Journey, which revisits much of the same material live at the Greenwich Village mainstay Smalls. Most of the band from Dancing Shadows returns, augmented here by Bahamian-born trumpeter Giveton Gelin, second percussionist Ron McBee, and Philadelphia pianist Farid Barron, another longtime Arkestra member. The results don’t forsake the big band’s notoriously clamorous approach so much as streamline it.

Despite the title, only half of the set’s dozen tracks were penned by Sun Ra himself. That includes the bristling opener, “Care Free,” on which Barron’s piano darts and whirls around Gelin’s eloquently unfurling solo atop a hypnotically lurching groove. Allen’s instantly recognizable screech bursts through around the halfway point, evoking similarly abrasive tones from the trumpeter. The band fades away as Allen coaxes auroral shimmers from his EWI (electronic wind instrument).

“Velvet,” originally recorded for 1959’s Jazz in Silhouette, showcases Ra’s off-kilter approach to swing (echoed in one of Allen’s two compositions on the album, Cosmic Hop) with Barron tracing acute angles across the keyboard, prodded by Allen’s piercing alto interjections. The two engage again on the manic “Dancing Shadows,” this time with the pianist throwing discordant jabs to collide with Allen’s gnarled blasts. The horns then erupt into cacophony buoyed by Smith’s frenzied rhythm.

The band does an admirable job conjuring some of the Arkestra’s monolithic “space chords” on a reduced but no-less-volcanic scale at the outset of “Love in Outer Space,” before Allen’s gravity-defying EWI casts a spell of otherworldly romantic mystery. Ra’s kinship with the ‘60s exotica of Les Baxter and Martin Denny is evident in the swooning “Fate in a Pleasant Mood,” which closes the evening with Allen veering from grunting lows to woozy highs.

The atmospheric “New Dawn” is Allen’s second contribution, giving an extended showcase to Hemingway’s bluesy tenor, bolstered by the leader’s skulking bassline. Mitchell is represented by the fever-dream elegance of “La Dolce Vita,” while Manzini is credited with the fractured bop of “Bouncing at Smalls.”

The presence of Thelonious Monk’s “Skippy” speaks to the two composers’ shared gifts for bold, barbed, and slightly askew melodies. Culling a set of vibrant tunes from Ra’s voluminous catalog, Mitchell has only scratched the surface of the possibilities for further exploration. It’s all the more invigorating to hear the Arkestra’s near-centenarian leader by his side.

Tyler Mitchell's Sun Ra's Journey Featuring Marshall Allen is out now on Cellar Live.

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel.