Sun Ra Arkestra, “Living Sky”
By Michael J. West · September 30, 2022 Merch for this release:
2 x Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

Technically it’s what’s called a “ghost band”: a classic big band whose leader (and, usually, namesake) has died and left the others to carry their banner. But the Sun Ra Arkestra isn’t so easy to lump in with the still-working Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Glenn Miller orchestras. Among other things: How much was Ra (who “departed” in 1993) ever really of this world anyway?

The Arkestra is now under the leadership of Marshall Allen—98 years old and a band member since the ‘50s—who understands that Ra is not a ghost but a spirit. His message of interstellar utopia requires the music to live and breathe, to reach out to new and receptive audiences rather than tickling the nostalgia bone. Hence for Living Sky, the Arkestra’s second studio recording since 1998, Allen himself adds to the repertory. Three of the album’s seven tracks are his original compositions.

Each one, however, channels the spirit of Sun Ra as surely as the master’s own tunes do. The title of “Marshall’s Groove” suggests some sort of signature piece for Allen. Instead, it’s exactly the kind of slow, psychedelic meditation that Ra specialized in circa 1960: equal parts drone, bebop, blues, and Afro-soul, with the dueling tenors of Nasir P. Dickerson and Chris Hemingway buffeted by riffs both gentle and urgent from trumpeters Michael Ray and Cecil Brooks; French hornist Vincent Chancey; and violinist Tara Middleton as the music slowly reaches a boiling point. His ballad “Firefly,” too, is mindful of Ra’s apprenticeship in the swing bands—it puts Allen’s own shrieking sax (plus solo lines by Chancey and trombonist Adriene G. Davis) against a luxuriant slow-dance backdrop.

Then again, Allen and the band keep the vintage set pieces fresh, too. The leader assays Ra’s “Somebody Else’s Idea” with an electronic valve instrument (EVI), adding an appropriately otherworldly voice to the texture, and pours charm all over the Disney tune “Wish Upon a Star,” a favorite of Ra’s, again supplementing the lushness with his coarse alto tone.

Then there’s the Allen-Ra diptych that gives the album its name. Allen’s composition “Day of the Living Sky” is ostensibly a response to Ra’s “Night of the Living Sky” (“Day” preceding “Night”) here, but it has a hypnotic life of its own, with Middleton’s searching, gorgeous flute blazing a trail across a sea of brass fills and Allen’s startling kora. Response or not, it’s an elegant complement for “Night,” which here gets a subtle percussive lift from low brass and the thoughtful interplay of hand percussionists Ron McBee, Jorge Silva, and Elson Nascimento. It’s a masterful touch, completely changing the feel of the composition in a flavor that Ra would no doubt have approved.

That’s the real secret of Living Sky’s success: Even as the listener misses the legendary bandleader’s presence, the music completely retains its potency without him because his psychic energy is everywhere. Sun Ra’s ghost doesn’t haunt the Arkestra, but his spirit vivifies it.

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