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The Sun Ra Arkestra scrambles a classical signal with "Chopin"

Vladimir Radojicic

Among the myriad influences on the musical cosmology of Sun Ra, some of the earliest came from the Western canon. At Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, where he enrolled as Herman S. Blount, he began a course of piano study with Professor Lula Hopkins Randall.

Prof. Randall "was also responsible for teaching voice, directing the chorus, and teaching all of the music and music education courses," as John Szwed notes in his essential biography Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. The future bandleader later recalled her music appreciation class as a gateway to the classical tradition. "I think I studied everything," he told the Bulletin of the State A.&M. Institute in 1936. "I studied Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Schoenberg, Shostakovich..."

Sun Ra internalized those references, and occasionally addressed one directly — for instance, Chopin's Prelude in A Major, Op. 28 #7, which he performed a handful of times in concert. One version, recorded in France in 1990, appears on the live recording Pleiades: A Jazz Symphonique. Now the Sun Ra Arkestra, the legacy ensemble that carries on his mission, has released the first studio version of Ra's arrangement. Titled "Chopin," it's the second single from Living Sky, due out on Omni Sound on Oct. 7.

Sun Ra typically made "Chopin" a concerto of sorts for his alto saxophonist Marshall Allen — and so it goes in this version by the Arkestra, which Allen has led with fierce commitment since 1993. Now 98, Allen takes the first pass at the melody about a minute and a half into the track. The band, with Farid Barron on piano, tends to an undulating groove beneath him. And as Allen drives further into abstraction, Vincent Chancey picks up the main lyrical theme, impeccably, on French horn.

Living Sky comes on the heels of the Arkestra's 2020 album Swirling, which was nominated for a Grammy award, and included on the New York Times list of Best Jazz Albums. Featuring a total of 19 musicians, including a string section, the new album was recorded at Rittenhouse SoundWorks in Philadelphia last June. A previous single, "Somebody Else's Idea," was released earlier this summer.

"Chopin" is the opening track on Living Sky — a reminder of the process of reinvention that Sun Ra brought to so many established traditions, and the spirit of perpetuity that guides his Arkestra even today. As a point of comparison or merely a frame of reference, here is a performance of the Prelude in A Major Op. 28 No. 7 by Seong-Jin Cho, presented by The Fryderyk Chopin Institute on Polish television.

The Sun Ra Arkestra will perform at World Cafe Livein Philadelphia on Sept. 15, and at the Woodsist Festivalin Accord, NY, on Sept. 25. Living Sky will be released on Oct. 7.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.