For more than two decades, the disciple that has most visibly carried on Sun Ra Arkestra’s legacy and sound is their musical director, alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, the iconic fire breather and life force that restored the Arkestra’s vitality in the massive vacuum left by Ra and John Gilmore’s death in the ‘90s. Allen turned 98 in 2022 and, as evidenced by Living Sky, his influence and leadership remain undiminished. Marking the Arkestra’s first new recording since their 2021 Grammy-nominated album Swirling, Living Sky was recorded on June 15, 2021 at Rittenhouse SoundWorks in Philadelphia and features a total of nineteen musicians, including a strings section. It was mixed and mastered by three-time Grammy winner Dave Darlington (Eddie Palmieri, Brian Lynch, Wayne Shorter).
Living Sky includes the first instrumental recording of Ra’s “Somebody Else’s Idea,” originally recorded in 1955 and again in 1970 for proper release on 1971’s My Brother The Wind, Vol II. Without June Tyson’s fierce vocal presence, “Somebody Else’s Idea” feels more measured, allowing for the hovering harmonic movement to glide into the foreground with the horns modulating their volume and presence in each cycle and bringing in new details, whether it be the mewling trumpets of Michael Ray and Cecil Brooks or the seeking sound flurries blow by Allen on Electronic Valve Instrument.
The Arkestra’s renewed brilliance is thanks in part to the singing of Tara Middleton, the true heir to Tyson, who plays violin and flute in the album. With Living Sky the Arkestra eschew the human voice, creating cosmic tones only with their instruments. The repertoire includes pieces of more recent vintage penned by Allen, complementing a variety of classic material that take on a decidedly more mellow hue in this context. The album opens with “Prelude in A Major,” Ra’s elaboration of the Frédéric Chopin miniature that previously appeared on only a few live recordings. Special Arkestra harmonies emanate from “Marshall’s Groove,” a spacey blues by Allen that ramps up patiently, like flames gingerly lapping at a sonic cauldron until an inferno engulfs the pot stoked by the swinging groove of drummer Wayne Anthony Smith Jr. Allen temporarily sets aside his alto in favor of the kora on his “Day of the Living Sky,” where his chiming chords open up like a sunrise welcoming the gurgle of hand percussion, meandering flute, and muted low brass crying in the far distance.
The album concludes with a pair of tuneful ballads that inject an uncertain optimism and beauty into the proceedings. Allen’s gorgeous “Firefly” provides the saxophonist with a lush platform for an extended solo toggling between pleading cries and ecstatic hollers while clearing improvisational space for Scott, veteran French horn maestro Vincent Chancey, trombonist Adriene G Davis, tenor saxophonist Nasir P. Dickenson, and a three-way string conversation between Middleton, Gwen Laster, and Melanie Dyer. The album’s hopeful vibe embraces a leap of faith with a new spin on “When You Wish Upon a Star,” a long-time feature in the Arkestra’s rep, where Allen offers a testimonial that’s anything but starry-eyed.
For decades listeners have looked to Sun Ra’s Arkestra for outward bound possibilities in music that grapples with earthly mayhem by embracing other galaxies. Yet their music has always been grounded by the human spirit. In this first new recording since the pandemic bandleader Marshall Allen and company give us something we can hold onto, an instrumental album rich in spirituality guiding us through the unknown yet again.