A visionary from outer space often misunderstood in his own time, Sun Ra‘s always been a tricky artist to fully summarize in one single collection of music. More accurately, it’s essentially impossible, his career stretching over five decades and veering into countless stylistic detours. Perhaps the closest thing to a comprehensive Best-Of collection in the Sun Ra-verse is In the Orbit of Ra, a collection released via Strut in 2014 curated by Marshall Allen, longtime collaborator with Sun Ra and bandleader of the Sun Ra Arkestra. But there’s no shortcut when it comes to Sun Ra’s music—his sound was never static, and the one thing that ties all of his music together is a joyful curiosity that transcended the popularity of any given commercial demand at the time. People didn’t get it, but the trade-off is that now—even 70 years after some of his earliest recordings—his music sounds unbound to era.
The timelessness that’s kept listeners curious about Sun Ra’s music and artists continuously inspired by it is what has allowed the Sun Ra Arkestra to continue performing for nearly three decades after his death. Under Allen’s direction, the Arkestra has found their home onstage, reinterpreting and building on the legacy of Sun Ra’s creations as new generations continue to learn about the jazz composer and Afrofuturist icon, which in turn has resulted in Swirling, the Arkestra’s first new recordings in over 20 years. And it’s as much an opportunity to bring Herman Blount’s music forward into the 21st century as it is a surprisingly comprehensive summary of his career dating back to the 1950s.
Swirling is, to simplify things a bit, a set of new recordings of some of the “standards” in the Sun Ra book—essentially all of these are tracks that the Arkestra had been playing at performances just a few years ago, and they sound seasoned and harmonious. “Tight” is never quite the right word with a group like the Arkestra, as a kind of soulful, swinging looseness is part of what set Sun Ra’s music apart even while it was performed impeccably. Take “Angels & Demons At Play,” originally released in 1965, which here showcases a rhythmic complexity along with a kind of cosmic ambience that’s not so much chaotic as is it is playfully unpredictable. “Rocket No. 9,” meanwhile, has a staccato strut to it that nods to classic funk, while “Seductive Fantasy” has an intoxicated and intoxicating burlesque sway that maintains an infectious lightness throughout its 12 minutes.
Closing track “Door of the Cosmos Say,” a new permutation of “Door of the Cosmos” from 1979’s Sleeping Beauty, is a strong showcase of how the Arkestra breathe new life into the material, which to be fair still feels contemporary four, five and six decades down the line. The track is dense, intricate, even a bit weirder than the original, thanks to its space-age synth burbles, but performed lovingly and with at times fiery intensity from musicians that called Sun Ra both friend, leader and influence. The mix of material might operate like a retrospective, but the verve and creativity of the Arkestra is what keeps these pieces alive.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.