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Jazz Album of the Week: The Sun Ra Arkestra’s Swirling is Amazingly Out of This World

October 26, 2020. It’s been over 20 years since the release of the Sun Ra Arkestra’s last studio album, 1999’s Song for the Sun. But their new album, Swirling, confirms that space is, indeed, still the place.

In earthly terms, Morton Street in Philadelphia’s Germantown section is still the place, the place where the Arkestra’s 96-year-old alto saxophonist and music director for the past 23 years, Marshall Allen, still lives, as he has since the early ’70s, with several of the Arkestra’s members. That in itself is a story so unique in the age of the single-family home that it deserves much more robust journalistic treatment than this modest space can provide.

In the present context, the Arkestra’s terrestrial carbon footprint should be of relatively little concern, given that their minds, hearts, souls and, most especially, their music are, as they’ve been for nearly 70 years, still communing with the cosmos and ironing out the final details of mankind’s astral homecoming, where founder Sun Ra, an avowed citizen of Saturn (it was on his passport), will undoubtedly be waiting by the piano, resplendent in pharaonic regalia.

The good news is that with the release of Swirling, there’s even more to listen to while we’re waiting for the arrival of a Sun Ra-style rapture. Ra himself composed over 1,000 original tunes, and that’s to say nothing of the various alternate arrangements that, even if recorded, would have to fight with almost 200 other albums for listeners’ attention. Ra believed in getting his musical message out there; he notoriously started his own record label to do just that. But his efforts weren’t exhaustive.

Not totally.

One of Swirling’s major selling points is that it features a previously unrecorded Sun Ra composition, “Darkness,” the charts for which Marshall Allen unearthed—though not in the way all Arkestra music is decidedly un-Earthed—from Ra’s archives.

Compositionally, Marshall Allen’s no slouch either, and one could make the argument that this record is out not to necessarily right past wrongs but to shine a deserving light on Allen, who, for so long, played the supporting role that might always be his legacy even though he’s now led the Arkestra for over half as long as Sun Ra did.

Allen’s the one primarily responsible for the 11 re-arrangements—or, in some cases reinventions—of old Sun Ra tunes here. And just as there’s a previously unrecorded Ra composition, there, too, is a previously unrecorded Allen composition. It’s the title track, and it’s a swinging, big-band inspired fever dream, with a surrealist vibe like something out of a David Lynch movie. When vocalist Tara Middleton, who never falters in occupying the role originated by June Tyson, joins the fray about halfway through, I’m continually reminded of the cantina scene in Star Wars. The only thing that’d make that already great scene more perfect is if this were the tune playing. Allen totally nails the aesthetic here, fitting in by standing out.

Swirling really is a testimony to Marshall Allen as Sun Ra’s finest disciple,” Knoel Scott told British magazine The Wire recently. “He has not only kept the band together but has also put his own stamp on Sun Ra’s music.”

Scott (saxophones and flute), along with fellow longtime Arkestra members Michael Ray (trumpet, brass section leader, and vocals) and Dave Davis (lead trombone and vocals), told me recently that there are staggering quantities of original Marshall Allen compositions that haven’t even been played, let alone recorded. Which is both hard to believe and not— because while Ra’s outsize musicality, intellect and pure eccentricity eclipsed his orchestral backing before his 1993 earthly departure, His spectral, quasi-dictatorial presence remains, in what might be thought of as music’s ultimate emeritus position.

“Jazz is a dictatorship,” Scott said recently. “You’re there to please the leader. Now, the leader of the Arkestra is still Sun Ra, but Marshall Allen is the director.”

It’s no slight to Allen; this seems to be among the truths held self-evident on Morton Street. Scott knows it; Allen knows it; even John Gilmore, a tenor saxophonist so talented that those in the know say he could have been another John Coltrane had he not chosen to stay with the Arkestra until his 1995 death—even he knew it. (Aside: Scott told me recently that sitting next to John Gilmore at rehearsal was like sitting next to God himself.) And it seems not to have mattered. Imagine that: musicians and men of such little ego. They must be from outer space!

Among the things most fascinating—and there are many about this group— is that the Arkestra, among both those who were direct disciples of Sun Ra as well as younger members who’ve come to know him only anecdotally, all cop to a kind of magnetism that keeps them in orbit around the Sun Ra lodestar; it’s an orbit that can manifest itself elliptically—it’ll let you step out a bit—but, more often than not, it brings you back. Like John Popper’s hooks and the aging mob bosses of Mario Puzo’s imagination.

For folks like Gilmore, the gravity factor was Sun Ra’s pioneering approach to harmony. “My gosh,” he said in A Joyful Noise, the 1980 documentary about Sun Ra and the Arkestra. “It’s unbelievable that anybody could write meaner intervals than Monk or Mingus. But he does.”

After listening to this newest, long-time-coming release, one of the things that becomes clear is that this unduly burdensome role of Ra’s earthly manifestation could only be realized by Allen, who’s tasked here with the impossible task of reinventing Ra’s music in a way that does justice to both Ra and himself, and somehow succeeds.

Case in point: On Swirling’s opener, “Satellites are Spinning/Lights on a Satellite,” Allen takes the iconic melody that was played in the original version by Gilmore and has harmonized it across the entire horn section, evoking a profound vastness, the type of natural majesty you might get from peering into the lid of the Grand Canyon. All the while, it’s Allen’s alto over the top of this verdant canopy that must represent the vehicle transporting the Arkestra through the cosmos to Betelgeuse or Saturn or…wherever.

How, in the world, at 96, can a man play like that? There’s a somewhat predictable, if impossible, answer from a colleague.

“No one has the ferocity of Marshall Allen—even at 96,” Scott said. “What comes out of his horn is not from this planet.”

Longtime fans of the Arkestra will revel in alternate arrangements of Arkestra staples like “Angels and Demons at Play,” “Rocket No. 9,” and “Astro Black,” but the one I can’t seem to get out of my head is “Door of the Cosmos.” It’s got everything: a space age feel with Allen all over the place on EVI, which is the perfect foil for an otherwise pretty straight-ahead mid-tempo jazz waltz with explosive horn solos and distinguished piano playing by former Wynton Marsalis sideman, Farid Barron.  

One of the most out-there tunes is an exalted take on “Queer Notions,” a tune Sun Ra and Coleman Hawkins once played together in Fletcher Henderson’s big band. That was Ra’s thing— going deep into the past, emerging with something ancient and putting a space suit on it. This is Allen channeling Sun Ra’s quintessence.

When you hear guys like Knoel Scott refer to the extraterrestrial origins of some of the things Allen’s able to do at 96—96!—the inclination is to nod and smile and think that there really is no business like show business. But take a listen, discern the legit stuff from the gratuitously weird, and tell me if you’re able to land on a more plausible explanation.

Matt Silver is a journalist, commentator, and storyteller who’s been enamored with the concept of performance since his grandparents told him as a toddler that singing "Sunrise, Sunset" in rooms full of strangers was the cool thing to do.