Sun Ra Arkestra
What can we say about the Sun Ra Arkestra? The group has long had a right to challenge the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as the greatest show on earth. The juggernaut’s originality, energy, influence, and expressions of joy are indisputable, even nearly three decades after the group’s founder Sun Ra (born Herman Blount), the singular keyboardist and composer, died. The orchestra has been led since the mid-90s by the reedist Marshall Allen, still going strong at 98.
Ra was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and he formed the Arkestra in Chicago in the early 1950s, where he developed a sui generis mythology, claiming he was from Saturn. He created a deep repertoire that collided his early work as an arranger for big band pioneer Fletcher Henderson with bits of proto-exotica and free jazz presented with a manic, otherworldly stage show. The group relocated to New York in 1961, securing its reputation as one of the most fearless and experimental groups in jazz. In 1968 they moved to Philadelphia where the group has lived in the same Germantown row home ever since. Members of the Arkestra weren’t merely hired guns, but committed adherents to the leader’s vision. Master musicians like John Gilmore, June Tyson, Pat Patrick, and Danny Thompson, among others, spent decades in the group. When Ra died the group struggled to keep its footing, but eventually Allen righted the ship.
With the addition of new blood, including the magnetic vocalist Tara Middleton—who now serves as a kind of focal point—the Arkestra has retained its luster, and continues to put on remarkable shows. After a long absence from the recording studio the Arkestra has released two fantastic albums since the pandemic, including the 2020 release Swirling and the more recent all-instrumental Living Sky, both of which reinforce the ongoing brilliance of the group’s performances.