Sun Ra Arkestra

Song for the Sun

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Perhaps it's that the band is misnamed, and perhaps too many of its principals have emigrated to other places in this world or the next, but despite Marshall Allen's storied -- and well-deserved -- reputation, this just doesn't have the feel of a Sun Ra Arkestra recording. The reason is simple enough: Despite the fact that the Ra band played many swing tunes and engaged actively in groove music throughout its nearly 50 year history, the band played that music, no matter how sincere, on the edges of what it was originally created for. Sun Ra's "Take the A Train" never sounded like Ellington's. But here, Allen has brought together a band -- many of whom had played with Ra -- six years after the fact, and after the passing of June Tyson and John Gilmore and assembled a program of pretty much straight dance swing tunes with a bit of odd percussion in the mix for a little color. Man, this is hard. The entire set is jazz dance music, entirely arranged by Allen, and mostly composed by him. Tracks like "They're Peepin," a co-write between Ra and Allen, and a Jerome Kern number being the only exceptions. As modern swing, the disc succeeds in spades. Allen's writing prowess is rooted deep in the music he grew up with -- not the least of which was Fletcher Henderson's, whose band Ra came up in. His charts reflect the classic bands: Henderson, Basie, Ellington, McShann, and others. His creation of space for soloists to make a mark for themselves in his arrangements is minimal, however. The trumpet break in "They're Peepin'" by Michael Ray and the guitarist who quotes "Downtown" in the middle of his solo are reined in by large chromatic restrictions not in the original charts. And as the record goes on, it seems to move more inside the swing, swang, swingin' world than transcending it on the way to somewhere else. But perhaps that's prejudice. To call a band the Sun Ra Arkestra and to dedicate in title an entire album to the man, it would seem natural to reflect his influence in some way. If this were a Marshall Allen album of swing tunes, one might bat an eye and then appreciate it for what it is. And it is fine as music, there can be no doubt, but as music that is supposed to, by its name, reflect innovation and forward movement, it misses the mark.

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