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Marshall Allen presents Sun Ra and His Arkestra: In the Orbit of Ra

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Album Review

As the longest-tenured member of the Arkestra (55-plus years and counting as of 2014), there is no one with a deeper understanding of the music of Sun Ra than Marshall Allen, and that's part of what makes In the Orbit of Ra such a special collection. The Arkestra's long history is often divided into musical/geographic periods or spoken of as a progression from inside to outside playing. This set spans from the late '50s to the late '70s but the non-chronological sequencing shows how artificial those stylistic boundaries are. The tracks chosen show how many of the elements of their more outside material were present even back in the late '50s and there was quite clearly a strong, coherent musical vision in place from the beginning (but most audiences probably weren't ready for it yet). There are a few signature tunes here, but this isn't really a greatest-hits collection. Instead, it's a guided tour from Marshall Allen deep into Sun Ra's music. Each track leads the listener a bit further so by the time Art Jenkins' space voice enters at the end of disc one, it makes perfect sense instead of just being "weird" in a different context. "Solar Differentials" is the perfect setup for the second disc (starting with the hypnotic "Astro Black," replete with industrial drill sounds), which continues the journey with more of a focus on vocal pieces over the years, ultimately leading us back full circle to the beginning in Chicago. In addition to the unreleased tracks "Reflects Motion, Pt. 1" and "Trying to Put the Blame on Me" (a wonderful solo piano piece), there's an unedited "Islands in the Sun" and a bunch of great photos by Val Wilmer. Then there's the remastering: this is easily the best sound most of these tracks have ever had before, on CD or LP. There are any number of great performances here, but Ronnie Boykins' work on bass really stands out with the new remastering. Despite the fact that most of this material was already available, In the Orbit of Ra is close to essential for fans and a pretty good place to start for the curious Sun Ra novice. He really was writing music for the 21st century.


Born: May 22, 1914 in Birmingham, AL

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s

Of all the jazz musicians, Sun Ra was probably the most controversial. He did not make it easy for people to take him seriously, for he surrounded his adventurous music with costumes and mythology that both looked backward toward ancient Egypt and forward into science fiction. In addition, Ra documented his music in a very erratic fashion on his Saturn label, generally not listing recording dates and giving inaccurate personnel information, so one could not really tell how advanced some of his innovations...
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