When Sun Ra departed our Earthen realm in 1993, he left behind a legacy that burns brightly to this day. His galactic music, free-flowing jazz odysseys, continue to baffle and illuminate every new generation, and the cosmic realm that he created lives on in the work of artists across the genre spectrum.
He also, of course, gave us the Arkestra, one of the greatest groups in the history of music, recorded or otherwise. Emerging in tandem with Sun Ra in the 1950s, the amorphous ensemble are still going at lightspeed as they continue even now to develop their interstellar jazz. Since the death of Sun Ra, the group have been under the stewardship of GOAT saxophonist Marshall Allen – a core member of the ensemble since its inception – who remains a real force with a horn in his hands at the age of 98.
So, of course, the Sun Ra Arkestra have nothing left to prove. And yet.
Their live shows remain intoxicating, ritualistic affairs and when they occasionally venture into the studio, they sound invigorated. New record, Living Sky, which comes quickly after 2020’s Swirling is testament to this. It is an all-consuming, sumptuous record, or to paraphrase Ra’s description of a different album: “Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy”.
It evokes the pretty and beguiling moments of the Arkestra’s back catalogue, far more than the bombastic and experimental. The twinkle-twinkle of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and the intoxicating planetes sauvage of ‘Lanquidity’. Opener ‘Chopin’ is this is in microcosm. An elegant reworking of one of the French-Polish composer’s preludes, dainty, romantic piano melodies form the track’s skeleton, as elephantine horns fade in and out of earshot, whilst ‘Wish Upon A Star’ is a shimmering version of the Pinocchio song in the same vane.
The compositions on Living Sky, a mixture of Sun Ra’s, Allen’s, and some relative standards, are patient affairs that build slowly to crescendos – each track is certainly a sprawl, but not a single one outstays its welcome. ‘Night of the Living Sky’ is astral swing music, punctuated by long, swelling notes on Tara Middleton’s violin and metallic ASMR percussion, whilst ‘Marshall’s Groove’ is a swaggering exercise in Twin Peaks blues wherein layers and layers of brass are slowly added to the whole until a state of total skronk is achieved.
Throughout Living Sky, Allen and his cohorts very deliberately do not reinvent the wheel. Instead, their objective here is a cohesive and beautiful record, a balm for the senses. A devotion to the eternal beauty of the universe. It is impeccably executed. Indeed, through the Arkestra, the legacy of Sun Ra lives on, and his star only burns brighter with every passing trip round the sun.
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