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Monday, November 7, 2022

Sun Ra Arkestra – Living Sky (Omni, 2022)

By Martin Schray

The new album of the Sun Ra Arkestra, Living Sky, follows last year’s album Swirling, which was the Arkestra’s first new studio release in 21 years. Musically, the new album is close to its predecessor. It continues a process of carrying on Sun Ra’s legacy while reimagining it. Of course, no one plays like Ra, the piano parts are different, and his synthesizer is gone as well, which takes away the otherworldliness of the music. Additionally, the excessive use of polyrhythms, the sheer percussion tornadoes are pushed into the background. More central is the swing (even under Ra, the Arkestra has repeatedly played jazz classics from the swing and bebop eras), transcendentalism and melody.

The Arkestra’s leader, 98-year-old Marshall Allen, who has been familiar with Ra’s music for more than 60 years, embodies this gentle change most obviously. On “Chopin“ (based on Frédéric Chopin’s “Prélude in A Major“), his alto saxophone counters the slow-moving melody with squealing, slinking and and screeching sounds, backed by Vincent Chancey’s heartfelt French horn. This new version moves in juicy ups and downs while also humming and slowing down into a kind of Arkestra-esque lullaby. As throughout the album, there are subtle shifts of foreground and background: alternating muted trumpets and sweet-sounding strings, flutes, a kora (a harp-like instrument), guitars and well-tempered horn sections move like a caravan through the Sahara.

Several pieces on Living Space have already been recorded by the old Arkestra under Sun Ra. Besides “Chopin“, the opener, also “Somebody's Else’s Idea“, though the old versions sound harder, the theme was a chant, sung by June Tyson with declarative power, that focuses on self-empowerment and afrofuturism. On Living Space, it’s an instrumental that sways leisurely, with baritone saxophonist Knoell Scott at the center, singing the theme wordlessly over shifting tones. “Wish Upon A Star“, the final piece, is also not new, though it hasn’t been recorded under Ra but was released on Music for the 21st Century in 2003 under Allen’s direction. Structurally, it ties in nicely with “Chopin“, a perfect bookend for the album.

Other pieces, however, are new, such as “Day of the Living Sky“. Here Allen plays the kora, the aforementioned harp-like instrument. However, he does not use it for flowing lines as in traditional West African music, his style is rather reminiscent of a thumb piano. In general, the leitmotif of Living Space is a relaxed atmosphere, which is repeatedly roughened by Allen’s saxophone. The swaying swing rhythms structure the music. A good example is “Firefly“, a beautiful ballad delightfully jumbled by dissonant harmony strings and solo strands from Allen’s alto sax.

All in all, Living Space is a beautiful Arkestra album, on which Ra’s ideas are ever present - hidden beneath the surface or floating above the melodies. For just under an hour, this album also opens a musical door into the universe without revealing its secrets. The Sun Ra Arkestra not only swings, it is also funky. Even in the freest passages, the ensemble plays precisely like a clockwork - even if it certainly ticks according to different meters than the usual timekeeping.

Living Space is available on vinyl, CD and as a download.

You can listen to it here: