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Bassist Tyler Mitchell joined the Sun Ra Arkestra in 1985, touring with the troupe and appearing on two albums. Mitchell left soon after, but the spirit of Sun Ra — who remained committed to jazz tradition while exploring otherworldly realms — never left him. Lucky for us, because the result is this fine album.
Mitchell’s partner in this venture is Marshall Allen, a member of the Arkestra since 1958 and keeper of the flame since 1995. Now 97, Mitchell — who plays alto sax and electronic valve instrument, or EVI — still sounds robust enough to travel the spaceways. Tenor saxophonist Chris Hemmingway, alto saxophonist Nicoletta Manzini, drummer Wayne Smith and percussionist Elson Nascimento round out the ensemble.
The first six of these dozen tracks are Sun Ra tunes that mostly focus on the bandleader’s swinging and mellow sides. It’s a wise choice as it allows the band’s exuberance and flexibility to shine. Their arrangement of “A Call for All Demons,” with its ostinato bass line and Allen’s agitated sax solo soaring over a hummable melody, would fit in nicely on a Charles Mingus album. Elsewhere, the simple melody and gliding rhythms of “Interstellar Loways” suggest a pleasant jaunt through the cosmos. It’s only fitting that the lone non-Sun Ra cover is “Skippy” by Thelonious Monk, another singular artist whose sounds were rooted in Black music traditions yet seemed to come from other realms. The group’s treatment here is decidedly funky, with Mitchell and Smith locked in a tight groove.
It’s the originals that venture more to the outer limits. “Marshalls the Deputy” is a relatively brief burst of collective improvisation. “Spaced Out,” with its free interplay and retro sci-fi sound effects —courtesy of Allen’s EVI — successfully channels the spirit of Mitchell and Allen’s former boss. All told, the combination of tradition and exploration, the swinging with the celestial, is an effective one. — John Frederick Moore
Featured photo by Brian Chilson