There is a part of me that believes I’m hardly worthy to speak on the artistic output of such venerable giants as Sun Ra, let alone the band that carries on and continues to evolve after his departing. And yet, after this, I plan on tackling a recent new John Coltrane release, so here we are.
I am new to being a genuine jazz fanatic, by at least thirteen years, motivated by a continuing evolution of interest and deeper fascination. But I always seemed to lean into unusual and difficult music, books, and many other pursuits since childhood. My discovery of Scott Joplin was even met with lukewarm casualness by my grandmother, and yet, I continued to explore a variety of different forms of music whenever I could. The closest possible link to the Arkestra might be the Antifolk scene in New York City with their sometimes controlled chaos from the folk, pop, and rock worlds that was mixed with everything in between. It was certainly an acquired taste and that may have primed my tastes to what would evolve as a deep interest in hardcore freeform jazz. I only regret I never saw the Arkestra in action during my seven-year sojourn in the City, especially since I discovered Ra and his big band on a Disney tribute doing an out of this world cover of “Pink Elephants on Parade” from Dumbo a few years before I moved to New York. My deep dive into their catalog took over twenty more years for some strange reason.
Swirling is the first Sun Ra Arkestra studio recording in over twenty years, so of course, I had to get in on vinyl so I could get the full sonic experience permeating my living space more directly than a two-dimensional MP3 file. To experience the Arkestra on a studio recording can weave from recognizing an older jazz standard to controlled chaos. Even the old standards are dressed in newer accoutrements that pay tribute to the original tune but can confuse a listener. And the live recordings venture even more into what I would call ethereal chaos. But never fear, Ra always has and had a plan. This is all by design for him, who by now, everyone should know, came to Earth from Saturn to teach us all how to save ourselves from wars, all the infighting and ourselves, even if he realized we weren’t worth saving. Musically, Ra was an optimist.
The album is no different in effort or quality than earlier studio explorations, but this is not a disparate series of unconnected recordings slapped together to sell at a show to make money for the return trip home. That is another form of controlled chaos that record collectors and discography writers are all-too-familiar with. Here, are new recordings of Ra classics and a premier recording of Marshall Allen’s “Swirling” who still directs the Arkestra as he inches closer to being on this Earth for almost a century. Our collective New Year’s resolutions should be to see the Arkestra wherever possible.
“Swirling,” the third track takes us on a big band journey into the ethersphere as we begin a slow cosmic dance into Space. Picture yourself as we all sail higher above the insignificant atmosphere of mere mortals listening to their commercial radios, chained to their materialistic machines of motor transport, puzzled by the collective activities of everyone escaping the bounds of gravity. Truly, the track seems to literally swirl, with a few forays from the horns, piano, and vocals, lending credibility to the compelling space dance.
“Rocket Number 9 is a classic rerecording, one that I seem to remember Ra including in many collections I have explored over the years. The spirit of Ra is strongly present here as well as that of June Tyson. I have always wondered if there were any connection to the early Rock ‘n’ Roll classic, “Rocket 88,” but in the 1950s everyone seemed to be obsessed with space travel. Almost everyone but Ra moved on, because Ra was on a mission. Even in the afterlife, he explores the Cosmos for our pleasure and edification. The trademarked chaos is here, but there is always a method to the alleged madness. This is not a call to arms but a call to board Rocket Number 9 for Venus before it takes off and leaves you behind regretting you missed the opportunity of the millennium, while the instruments soar and the rocket zooms through freeform outer space.
“Infinity / I’ll Wait for You” soars into the stratosphere with a pondering liftoff featuring horns, piano, and gentle pulsating drums into a cacophony of ecstasy and then a soaring, wandering and traipsing through space like it was a walk in the woods on the way to Granny’s house. The whole album is classic Sun Ra directing from Saturn, but this is a definite favorite. The only criticism I have of this powerful album is that the record is that the record clocks in at eleven tracks, the CD, ten, and the digital thirteen, but they managed to leave off the excellent “Unmask the Batman” from the record and the CD.
The Arkestra just released another new studio album last year, Living Sky. We should all make an effort to see the Arkestra live as soon as possible. Check their website for dates and to purchase this and their latest album, and follow their Twitter for current news.
RadioMike, 31 January 2023