Sun Ra Arkestra ‘Swirling’ 2LP/CD (Strut) 5/5

“I saw Sun Ra at the Bottom Line in the 80s and it took 3 days for The Weirdness to wear off. 72 hours of trees not looking (or acting) like trees. 3 days of the wind whispering terrible secrets. And the STARS…!”

That half-a-week trip was tweeted by none other than Vernon Reid on the very same day I started listening to “Swirling”. It perfectly sums up not only Frequency Bias but also the out-there legend that is Sun Ra. A legend that absolutely befits someone who was, among other things, a pioneer of Afrofuturism, the co-creator of the Outer Space Visual Communicator (a giant machine, played with hands and feet, that allowed artists to create and finger-paint with light) and, of course, the only man to have visited Saturn.

The 15 member Arkestra assembled here is obviously not led by Sun Ra, who died in 1993, but by 96 (!) year old saxophonist Marshall Allen, who has captained the spaceship since the mid 90s following John Gilmore’s passing. Of the 15 musicians on this album, the group’s first since 1999, there are contributions from a pair of late long-time Arkestra members, saxophonist Danny Ray Thompson, who died in March, and percussionist Atakatune, who died in October 2018. Nice to think (however scientifically unlikely) that they’re all cosmic-jamming together in a very well equipped Saturn-based Arkestra right now.

“Swirling” was recorded in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Soundworks and revisits some of Ra’s classic compositions, offering new arrangements for the likes of “Satellites Are Spinning”, “Door of the Cosmos”, “Rocket No. 9” and “Angels and Demons at Play”.

Tara Middleton’s pure vibrato hopefulness introduces “Satellites Are Spinning/Lights on a Satellite”, stepping aside to allow the Arkestra to sensually massage our 2020 aching muscles, frayed nerves and damaged souls. Layer upon layer of calm plus washes of mildly dissonant, reversing horns instill a serene, yet always stirred, feeling. It’s like being orbited by a boundless, enlightening wisdom.

“Seductive Fantasy” is more seductive; a serpentine shimmy, oscillating on a baritone riff. Again, deep understanding is communicated – beckoning us to look up to the stars where everything will be OK. The Allen penned “Swirling” brings some sophisticated, playful swing to the astronomical soothing. It benefits from a jubilantly articulate Farid Barron piano solo.

“Angels and Demons at Play” riffs afro hard with the Arkestra building, swelling, and compellingly expanding. Middleton tells us how it is, coercing trombonist David Davis to vocally echo her key messages.

“The sky is a Sea of Darkness when there is no sun to light the way. There is no day, there’s only darkness. Eternal sea of darkness.” “Sea of Darkness” is a pulsating drama that acts as a long, sometimes foreboding segue into the Bounce! Bounce! crossover hip-hop of “Rocket No. 9”. This No 9 is a very hooky, spirited, uptempo rendering of the original “Rocket #9” complete with sprightly Davis/Middleton vocal interplay. Zoom! Zoom! Up in the air! Note for all you parents with young kids – this could easily be their Sun Ra gateway.

“Astro Black” is a cosmic duet highlighting Middleton’s expressive, deep voice-of-the-universe and Allen’s EVI-tastic space whistles and burps. “Infinity / I’ll Wait for You” dances between a Clangers vs orchestra tune-up free jazz and several winning, cacophonous peaks.

The swinging, finger-clicking, cockel-warming “Sunology” precedes the album exit that is “Door of the Cosmos/Say”. Fred Barron’s fervent, take-it-to-church piano is fluid and evangelical throughout as the Arkestra billows warmth, the sax dances and the EVI sprinkles occasional incongruous cosmic dust. “Love and life, Interested me so, That I dared to knock, At the door of the cosmos”…repeat til fade-out.

“Swirling” is a timely gift. It swirls, soothes, vibrates and uplifts. It seems to understand what we need. It isn’t the untreelike Weirdness that Vernon experienced back in the 80s, it’s a series of superbly arranged, accessible wisdoms; delivered by folks who know better, expect better and hope for better.

“We truly hope that this recording brings much joy to a planet which is so deeply in need of a spirit sound and vibration,” saxophonist Knoel Scott said. “We hope it contributes to a change in the ominous direction of man’s journey through the cosmos”.

Allen added “This new release is the Arkestra’s love offering to the world. Beta music for a better world.” Cue applause and EVI space toots.

Ian Ward

Read also:
Sun Ra Arkestra ‘Live from Kalisz 1986’ 2LP (Lanquidity) 3/5
Sun Ra ‘Of Abstract Dreams’ LP-RSD (Strut) 5/5
Sun Ra ‘Singles – The Definitive 45s Collection: 1952-1961’ 3CD (Strut) 5/5
Sun Ra and His Arkestra ‘To Those Of Earth… And Other Worlds’ 2LP/2CD (Strut) 5/5
Sun Ra Arkestra & Marshall Allen ‘Babylon Live’ Ltd Edition CD + DVD (In and Out) 4/5