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Album of the Week: Sun Ra Arkestra, 'Living Sky'

Vladimir Radojicic
The Sun Ra Arkestra, which recorded 'Living Sky' at Rittenhouse SoundWorks in Philadelphia in 2021.

Tirelessly traveling the spaceways from planet to planet, Living Sky captures the Sun Ra Arkestra at its meditative best.

Arkestra fan-producer-promoter Ahmet Uluğ, founder of the Omni Sound label, commissioned the band to record an album that would be “accessible and healing in the Covid era” – and the result, arriving on the heels of the Grammy-nominated Swirling, is among the band’s best works. From Beat One of pianist Farid Barron’s guiding pulse on “Chopin,” the Arkestra plods along in a unison that reflects the stasis of where we've all been the last two-and-a-half years, but with generous doses of optimism for the days ahead.

The Arkestra has always relied on a strong rhythmic foundation, and it has a powerful pairing in bassist Tyler Mitchell and drummer Wayne Anthony Smith, Jr. Even as the Arkestra boasts an honor roll of past pioneers – including bassists Ronnie Boykins and John Ore, and drummers Clifford Jarvis, Robert Barry and Samarai Celestial (aka Eric Walker) – Mitchell and Smith may be the group’s most adept rhythm team. With their guidance, the Arkestra locks into a steady cruise that somehow hovers just above the ground – a sonic distinction that has just as much to do with Earth as with outer space. This pulse showcases the discipline at the core of the Ra philosophy, and it is hypnotically effective.

The Mitchell-and-Smith pocket elicits spirited exchanges from tenor saxophonists Nasir P. Dickerson and Chris Hemmingway on “Marshall's Groove” – a swinging tune named for the indomitable Marshall Allen, who has led the Arkestra since Sun Ra’s cosmic transition in 1993, and who at 98 is still leading the charge. Allen’s trademark inside/outside magic on alto saxophone takes a center spotlight on the album closer: a longtime Arkestra staple, the Disney standard “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

Organic ensemble interplay is also key to the Arkestra sound. On “Night of The Living Sky,” brass, strings and woodwinds balance their liberal commentary in a way that is never forced or cluttered. As with the Ellington and Basie bands before them, the Arkestra has found the air and space between the notes. They breathe together and sound out in their own language.

Perhaps a more precise title for this album could be “Soothing Tones for Mental Therapy.” Living Sky is far from an easy-listening album, but it will go down as one of the easiest Arkestra albums to listen to, both for new listeners and longtime fans. What the Arkestra deliver here is a warm embrace to chase away the residue of perilous times. Never sacrificing its founder’s vision, the Arkestra continues its integral outreach to fans of improvisation and beyond with a mission of universal healing.

Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music as a broadcaster, writer, host and musician. As a young child, he began absorbing the artistry of Miles Davis, Les McCann, Jimmy Smith, James Brown, Ornette Coleman, Weather Report, and Jimi Hendrix via his parent's record collection. He was so moved by what he was experiencing that he took pride in relaying all of his discoveries with anyone who would listen.