Friday, October 30, 2020

Sun Ra Arkestra - Swirling (Strut Records, 2020)

After Sun Ra left the mortal plane in 1993, the Arkestra carried on, eventually settling in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia under the able leadership of longtime member Marshall Allen. The band has conducted many tours, keeping the flame of Ra's music alight, but this is the first studio album the group has recorded in several decades. It is a wide ranging and very well played affair, over the course of two discs, the band hits many of the Arkestra high points from cosmic chanting to free jazz, deep blues and swing and some surprises along the way. What you learn right away from listening to this album is that this isn't some pale "ghost band" trading on the name of a long dead hero, but a vibrant, road tested unit that can play the full range of the band's huge catalog. Tara Middleton is a fine vocalist in the June Tyson mold and her singing leads the band into the opening medley "Satellites Are Spinning / Lights on a Satellite" which are examples of prime mid-period Arkestra material that the band cruises through, accenting the melodies and rhythms that made Sun Ra's compositions so intriguing. This is followed by the Allen original "Swirling" that makes use of the large reed and brass sections of the group to create a nostalgic and swinging performance anchored with excellent piano from Dave Hotep. As easily as they swing, they are able to move into more progressive material like "Astro Black" where once again the vocals ground the band before they take flight for a pithy improvised section. The medley of "Infinity / I'll Wait for You" with plaintive vocal calls and powerful instrumental swells also hits the mark demonstrating the quality of the arranging and the spontaneity of the musicians when given an open spot. A bit of esoterica from the Ra catalog is the surging tune "I'm Gonna Unmask the Batman" with Farid Barron's vocals framing a powerfully rhythmic performance. "Space Loneliness" is the longest track on the album gradually developing over some lush piano and horn arrangements, and delightful saxophone and electric guitar solos to add some spice. The album ends with the medley of "Door of the Cosmos / Say" with the much of the band chanting the melody and leading into a complex mix of acoustic piano and electronics that deftly encapsulates the band's link to the swing music of the past and the experimental music of the future. This album worked quite well, the new arrangements of Arkestra favorites along with surprising catalog choices combined with the talent and passion of the band make this a very successful project. Swirling -

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