CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

The Sun Ra Arkestra Is Swirling Through Space

Marshall Allen leads the fabled band on its first new album in two decades

Sun Ra Arkestra
The Sun Ra Arkestra on stage at Town Hall, New York, March 2020 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

For an album steeped in flighty Afrofuturism, spiky syncopation, and angular everything-else, Swirling—the first new full-length from the Sun Ra Arkestra since 1999—is gleefully set in its ways. It magically makes the past present, recalling the late Ra’s time in Fletcher Henderson’s band in the 1940s as well as his teasing avant-garde efforts of the late ’50s and mid-’70s. Equally represented, for the first time on record, are longtime leader and alto saxophonist Marshall Allen’s twitchy neo-traditionalist interpretive skills. Combined with the Arkestra’s legendarily spacey, spiritual, and sensual way with a song, this makes Swirling free, warm, and familiar; all but two of its tracks come from the Ra playbook. Yet it has an alluring adventurousness not found on the Arkestra’s last new album, A Song for the Sun, both hauntingly odd and playfully succinct.

That’s just what the Arkestra’s brain trust wanted Swirling to be in this moment of pandemic and unrest: a tonic with a sense of directness.

“Everybody now wants distance … there’s always this threat of violence, but music is without distance, without violence,” Allen says from his home at the Ra House in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, the neighborhood that the Arkestra’s founder chose for his communal live-and-work space in the late ’60s. The 96-year-old saxophonist, who’s been an Arkestra member since 1957, confesses to being tired after he, trumpeter Michael Ray (with Ra since 1978), saxophonist Knoel Scott (since 1979), and a 10-year-old trying his hand at drums for the first time (“a future Arkestra member,” Scott laughs) played a safely distanced show for their neighbors the night before our interview.

For an ensemble that toured relentlessly in normal times, a quarantined slowdown such as this has provided a chance to take stock, or better still, “practice and pray,” Ray says. “Ra said that will get you through anything. Act with a sense of urgency and move with alacrity.”

“I think it was the Creator that held this record up until the world really needed it,” Scott adds. “People are hungry for spiritual sustenance. The aura of all the negative forces that we’re being subjected to at this particular time made it crucial that a positive force—the sound of Swirling—be unleashed.” Unleashed indeed; newly reconfigured Ra songs such as “Unmask the Batman” and “Queer Notions” exude freedom the likes of which the Arkestra hasn’t practiced in eons. 

Scott and Ray agree that, with Swirling, Allen has truly come into his own. “I’ve been Marshall’s road roommate for decades, and he’s playing more kora [a West African string instrument] and EVI [electronic valve instrument] than he is alto sax,” Ray says. “I’ve fallen asleep to the tone of Marshall playing kora and woken up to that same sweet sound.”

“Listen to the originals and listen to Marshall’s reinterpretations,” Scott says with excitement. “His stamp is there. He’s pulling us out of our boxes, and away from our concept of what Sun Ra is.” Take the new re-recording of “Satellites Are Spinning/Lights on a Satellite”: “On Sun’s original, the flutes would go ‘dah-dah-dah-dah,’ then John Gilmore [Ra’s longtime tenor saxophonist, who led the Arkestra after Sun’s death in 1993 until his own passing in 1995] would play the melody. On Swirling, Marshall gives the ‘dah-dah-dah-dah’ to the brass, and the melody becomes its harmony for the whole reed section.”

Bolder still is the album’s lone new track—its title tune, penned by Allen—and how it reflects his past beyond Sun Ra. “Marshall isn’t one to talk about himself, but he has this amazing history: dancing before Charlie Parker, playing with James Moody … he has roots,” Scott notes. “Swirling’ reflects his love of Jimmie Lunceford and his big-band arranging style, not a standard eight-bar frame but a six-bar frame, and Marshall makes it into a cycle. Who would think of that? Yet it sounds so natural.”

Swirling was recorded at Philly’s Rittenhouse SoundWorks; producer Jim Hamilton used Sun Ra’s work for the Delmark and Horo labels as touchstones. “The end result is extremely hi-fi,” he says. “The Arkestra blend their voices and sing to the cosmos and the environment changes. If you’re there then, you change too. That’s what Ra was all about.”

Ray is particularly proud of the album’s crystal-clear mixes: “There’s been years with this Arkestra where you couldn’t hear a flute or couldn’t make out an oboe. The first thing we worked on here was how you can hear … differentiate … each sound.”

If Ray has any say, there could be more beyond Swirling in the Arkestra’s future. “There’s always music coming as Marshall writes every day,” the trumpeter states. “If space is the place, there’s music to go with that. Swirling is the tip of the iceberg as to what Sun and Marshall have.”

Allen concurs. “All these different feelings that you have, you write songs about them,” he says with a laugh. “When love was in, everybody wrote about love. Every day I got a song. A pleasant melody, a chaotic melody. That’s the way I live. The vibrations are around. Sit quietly and concentrate and you can hear things, remember things, about being sincere and truthful. So I write what I write because that’s the way I feel today. Tomorrow I will have another feeling and another song. That’s the way the universe is. Everything is going on, and everything has its space. And you know what space is, right?”

Originally Published