According to a recent study in the journal Science, astronomers have solved Saturn’s enduring mysteries: Its rings are far younger than we thought; its “missing moon” accounts for its “puzzling tilt.” On the new album Living Sky, alto saxophonist Marshall Allen sounds much younger than his 98 years. Under his direction, the Sun Ra Arkestra carries on the mission of its namesake—a pianist, composer, bandleader, and poet who often claimed to be from Saturn—by playing jazz from a marvelously slanted perspective.
A lovingly packaged, remastered reissue of The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra—the jazz legend’s first release, recorded in 1961—recently reminded us of Ra’s earliest moves away from conventionally organized songs. Here were the first stirrings of a more organic and collective approach, fusing jazz and other traditions into an Afrofuturist form that still sounds singularly prophetic. As Ra, who died in 1993, said in the 1974 film Space Is the Place: “We work on the other side of time.”
Living Sky follows on the heels of last year’s Swirling, which had been the first new studio release from the Arkestra in 21 years. The new one sounds as buoyant as its predecessor, yet more moodily mysterious. It continues a process of mining Ra’s rich legacy while also presenting new music meant to further his intent, which was always as much about uplifting spirits as upending musical expectations. (Living Sky was recorded during the pandemic and, like most of Ra’s output, can be heard as both a challenge and a balm.)
Allen, who played on Futuristic Sounds, and has been immersed in Ra’s music for more than 60 years, is the clearest embodiment of that aesthetic. On “Chopin,” (based on Frédéric
Chopin’s “Prelude in A Major”) his alto saxophone issues squeals, smears, and arcing figures that sound as oddly pleasing as on the version Ra recorded live in 1990 on Pleiades: A Jazz Symphonique. Gone are Ra’s stately, blues-tinged piano intro and synthesizer. This new version moves to the same Afro-Latin groove, but it’s more drone-like and slowed into something like a polyrhythmic lullaby. As throughout the album, there are subtle and delicious shifts of foreground and background: here, Vincent Chancey’s high-pitched French horn, muted trumpets, and sweet-toned strings move about like, well, planets in orbit.
Ra first recorded “Somebody’s Else’s Idea” in 1955 as a simple theme atop an ostinato with a bebop interlude. He remade it, indelibly, in 1970, the theme now a chant, the song a statement of personal empowerment via lyrics sung with declarative force by June Tyson. Now, it once again becomes an instrumental, loosely swinging and vaguely processional, with baritone saxophonist Knoell Scott wordlessly chanting the theme over shifting tones. Some tracks coalesce and then drift off, much like cloud formations, as with “Day of the Living Sky.” Here, Allen plays the kora, a harp-like instrument, employing it not for flowing lines, as in traditional West African music, but instead plucking urgent, bent tones and strumming soft-voiced figures. Two Allen compositions accumulate force in forthright fashion, with steadily growing intensity. “Marshall’s Groove” fairly oozes over cymbal strikes and a slow-walking bassline for nearly half its 11 minutes before settling into the swinging groove, its interlocked reed, horn and string statements nodding to Ra’s jazz and R&B roots. “Firefly,” a gently swaying ballad, gets thrown gloriously askew by dissonant strands of harmony and streaks of soloing from Allen’s alto saxophone.
Ra’s Arkestra and his compositions were always mutable organisms, his every performance animated more by ideas about collective rituals than by repertoire. Only two of these seven songs were composed by Ra, yet his presence and his ideas seem to burrow beneath or hover above them all. The 19 musicians gathered make music dotted with the sonic details of Ra’s past. If they can’t quite recapture the full force or stark originality that characterized their lodestar during his lifetime (who could?) they can and do evoke his broad range of moods and colors, which seem to befit this moment. And they get us to lean in and listen, with just the right tilt.
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