Sun Ra Arkestra: Living Sky review | John Fordham’s jazz album of the month

(Omni Sound)
The 98-year-old Arkestra vet Allen keeps the Ra flame burning with tranquil, semi-free jazz passages featuring kora, piano and his own abrasive sax. Even Chopin gets a look-in

In his biography Space Is the Place, documenting the life, times and boundless dreams of Arkestra leader Sun Ra, John F Szwed described Ra’s vivid presence amid “a cockpit of electronics” at the heart of his uniquely theatrical band on a college gig in the 1960s: “Sun Ra was in the house,” Szwed wrote, “and in his universe.” That universe was a unique merger of 1930s big-band swing, bebop, free-jazz, prototypical electronics, Afro-futurism, sci-fi, Egyptology and more. His legacy rolls on, almost three decades after his departure from the planet he believed he was only briefly visiting from his real home on Saturn.

Sun Ra’s saxophonist Marshall Allen, now 98, has kept the Arkestra on the road for fans old and new ever since. Living Sky is tranquil compared with much of the band’s dramatic past, but it’s still fuelled by sounds coming together and separating in congregations of spontaneous harmony. An Afro-Latin adaptation of Chopin’s Prelude in A Major mixes mellifluous horn sounds with the still-fiery Allen’s abrasive wails and yelps on alto sax; the exhilaratingly slow-walking Marshall’s Groove is a classically riffy Arkestra contrapuntal melee, while Day of the Living Sky contrasts sharp-plucked kora sounds with luminous flute lines. The classic Wish Upon a Star pitches microtonal alto-sax squalls against the quiet sighs of the other reeds. Living Sky is a fine tribute by the indefatigable Allen to his mentor’s methods, and a remarkable late-life affirmation of his own.

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