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Tyler Mitchell: Dancing Shadows (Mahakala)

A review of the bassist's album featuring Sun Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen

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Tyler Mitchell: Dancing Shadows
The cover of Dancing Shadows by Tyler Mitchell

Bassist Tyler Mitchell served a brief tenure in the Sun Ra Arkestra in the mid-’80s, appearing on the albums Reflections in Blue and After Hours before departing for more earthbound opportunities with the likes of Arthur Taylor, Shirley Horn, and George Coleman. He reconnected with the Arkestra, now under the direction of the tireless Marshall Allen, over the last decade, and finally invited the 97-year-old saxophonist into the studio for this raucous and engaging date.

Allen brought along Arkestra drummer Wayne Smith and percussionist Elson Nascimento, forming a chordless sextet with Chris Hemingway on tenor and Nicoletta Manzini on alto. Unsurprisingly, half of the album’s repertoire is culled from the Sun Ra songbook, here given a more streamlined form that allows Mitchell to emphasize the music’s strident grooves.

With Allen’s sputtering alto leading the way, the album kicks off with Ra’s “A Call for All Demons,” a brief invocation laced with the nonagenarian’s taut, spiraling lines. The atmospheric “Angels and Demons” hangs on Mitchell’s buoyant bass sound, with Allen switching to EWI to summon cosmic burbles and borealis-like shimmers. The altoist’s trademark squeals erupt during a breakneck run through “Dancing Shadows,” where his fellow saxophonists join him in a fiery free-for-all, while Mitchell intones the chant-like melody of “Enlightenment” with a growling arco.

Beyond the Arkestra material, Thelonious Monk’s “Skippy” lets the leader take the spotlight with a jaunty solo that bounces off the tune’s angular turns like a rubber ball, while Manzini penned two loose, Arkestra-inspired tunes. Mitchell also contributed a pair of originals, each one a portrait of one of his bandmates. “Marshall the Deputy” references Sun Ra’s nickname for his successor, channeling Allen’s blistering blowing into a three-minute avalanche pitting the altoist’s flying sparks against the unbridled propulsion of his regular rhythm section. A piece named for Manzini is given two renditions, the woozy, breathy “Nico” and the more melancholy “Nico Revisited.”

Learn more about Dancing Shadows on Amazon & Apple Music!

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.