With Swirling, the Sun Ra Arkestra wills a better world into existenceHannah Edgaron October 13, 2020 at 5:00 pm

“The satellites are spinning / A better day is breaking / Great happiness is pending / The planet Earth’s awakening.” The first lyrics on the Sun Ra Arkestra’s long-awaited Swirling (Strut), sung by Tara Middleton, sound like a dispatch from a world infinitely more promising than our own. That dogged optimism carries the entire studio album, the free-jazz institution’s first since 1999’s Song of the Sun. Founded in Chicago by the late Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount), the Arkestra remains as timeless and resplendently garbed as when it first touched down on stages more than 60 years ago; the only difference, really, are the new faces cropping up alongside the veteran players. Swirling breathes new life into more than a dozen Arkestra standards: Some are buffed up with new orchestrations (“Rocket No. 9,” “Sunology”), but most are total reinventions rather than reduxes. “The Sky Is a Sea of Darkness” is transfigured from its riotous original version into an unaccompanied, anthemic prelude, morphing into Ra’s hitherto unrecorded “Darkness,” a gently loping jaunt in triple time. Written by 96-year-old bandleader Marshall Allen, the title track breezily evokes big-band sensibilities, and “Queer Notions” (on the vinyl release only) gets a reading that sounds as euphoric and far-sighted now as Coleman Hawkins’s harmonically inventive proto-bebop performance for Fletcher Henderson’s band did in 1933. The passage of time, it seems, is of no consequence to Ra’s cosmic band. But it is an inevitability: On Swirling, you’ll hear the ghosts of recently departed conguero Atakatune and saxophonist and erstwhile band manager Danny Ray Thompson, who died after Swirling was wrapped up. They both make themselves heard, thunderously, on “Seductive Fantasy.” Middleton’s singing (a divine echo of long-gone Arkestra vocalist June Tyson) rises through the din eight minutes in, her voice hazy, enticing, inevitable. It’s as though the entire band has been holding its breath for her. Bracing and all-embracing, Swirling, like so much of the Arkestra’s output, sometimes defies easy description. Middleton, singing on opening track “The Satellites Are Spinning / Lights on a Satellite,” gets closest: “We sing this song to / A great tomorrow / We sing this song to / A balanced soul.” Listen, and so it may be. v

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