With 2020’s Swirling, the Sun Ra Arkestra—forever dedicated to the boundary-expanding Saturn-al jazz and future-life theories of the late Sun Ra—hung up a back-in-business sign for new music. While Swirling furthered Ra’s patented brand of free funky jazz and skronky parade soul, the freshly recorded Living Sky gives off more of the sweet, classically imbued, slow R&B-ish vibe put forth by alto saxophonist/kora player Marshall Allen, the Arkestra’s leader since Ra’s earthly passing in 1993.
The mellow-grooving Living Sky goes backwards and forwards, slowly simmering to a boil like Ra’s famous homemade soup for his Arkestra housemates. The 1955-vintage Ra-written track “Somebody Else’s Idea,” recorded in 1970 with ferocious vocalist June Tyson in front, gets renewed vigor as a moody, noirish instrumental with crisp harmonies and shining brass courtesy of trumpeters Cecil Brooks and Michael Ray.
There are woozy takes on Chopin and Leigh Harline’s “When You Wish Upon a Star,” but Allen truly shines as Living Sky’s composer. The baleful ballad “Firefly” and the lavalike blues of “Marshall’s Groove” steam and swing ahead, with memorable melody as their guide. Space is still the place, but Allen’s interpretation of that Ra motto now means pursuing more sonic elbow room for players such as Ray, French horn man Vincent Chancey, trombonist Adriene Davis, and tenor saxophonist Nasir Dickerson. Jumping in on the fun of free noisemaking, the Arkestra’s leader picks up his kora and finds the spirits amid the clap of hand percussion and Gil Evans-ish muted brass tone on his “Day of the Living Sky.”
With Living Sky, Allen has taken Ra’s philosophy of liberation, made it more his own than ever, let fly and brought the Arkestra into yet another phase.