Marshall Allen Steers The Sun Ra Arkestra Into The Future


Marshall Allen composed the title tune on Swirling, the Sun Ra Arkestra’s first studio date in more than 20 years.

(Photo: Alexis Maryon)

For Swirling, the first Sun Ra Arkestra studio album in more than 20 years, saxophonist Marshall Allen set veterans of the ensemble alongside new musicians to reanimate the group’s signature sound. Allen composed the title track for the Strut-released album, which includes new arrangements of Arkestra staples and several rarely recorded tunes from the Sun Ra songbook, including “Darkness.” It is music that responds to and generates vibration—the vibrations of the day—to speak to the world around us.

Allen, 96, who’s led the band since Sun Ra’s passing in 1993, recently spoke to DownBeat from his home in Philadelphia about assembling the group he performs with and retaining the Arkestra’s singular aesthetic.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

What was it like to rerecord this music?

I have new musicians. I changed all my musicians, most of them. Sun Ra had quite a few numbers. And then I added a few of my tunes. It’s according to the musicians I have, I do different numbers for different personalities and the way they play. I have about 50 or 60 tunes [that I’ve written] so far. I’ve played one or two on the albums that I’ve made. So, I played a couple of them on this album—and Sun Ra’s music.

In 30 years, I done went through hundreds of musicians. This is my latest band. New guitar players, bass and saxophones, trumpet and trombones. They’re coming along fine. They’re good musicians. Some of them out of New York, others out of Philadelphia. I got to figure out the tunes that we sound good on, so it’s creative and the vibration is there. You wanna leave that to the players; we have different styles of players. We’ve got so many numbers, so I picked some ones that I don’t play too much. I show them to the musicians, then we rehearse them.

One of the things about the musicour musical traditions in particular—is that, a lot of times the improvisations take into account what’s happening in the world at a particular moment. What should listeners expect out of the new arrangements on Swirling?

I have a tune that I wrote, “Swirling,” and then I have all the other tunes. First, you hear the melody and, [then you] create some things. Those [are] the ones I got now, that I pull out. Because that’s just the way I feel today, the vibrations today. I have so many tunes I could pick, it’d take all day long. So, I figured that this album was called Swirling, and I’d put the tunes on it that pertain to swirling.

What we do is, they play—but then there’s Sun Ra’s technique, his signature. Like Duke Ellington or any other band. They’ve got their sound, the way that they phrase the music. So, that’s what Sun Ra taught me, how to phrase the music. And that’s the way I do it. The musicians I have, I have to rehearse them to phrase a certain way like Sun Ra. And then we pick the tunes and we do it. And that leaves space for them to create the solos.

I noticed on the album that although there is a lot of movement between different styles, it’s still focused on that signature Arkestra sound. I’m wondering how long it takes for a new band to get comfortable with that?

My band is split between Philadelphia and New York. I have the drummer, the bass player, the surdo drum, the tenor player, and a couple of trombone players up there, the French horn player. They live in New York. The guitars, the singer, the saxophone, the piano player, dancers they’re here in Philadelphia. This is the nucleus of the band.

We get our parts, and then we get the others’ parts. That’s the way I do it. They come down or we go up there, and we join together and play the tunes that I write or Sun Ra’s tunes. Or we might play something from Fletcher Henderson. It’s the way you play it and the way you phrase the music, you see—our style of playing. And we have all the space in that for creativity. And when they’re playing, they can create to show off their skills and creativity in the song.

I noticed your voice on George Burton’s Rec·i·proc·i·ty. There is something that you said which resonated with me: “When you’re playing music, you’re affecting folks, you can affect people’s destiny and shit.” It is something that I have to ask you to elaborate on.

Sound body. Sound mind. We’re dealing with sound. And creativity, because it’s a creative music. To have creativity of this world. And then we are talking about space. And things to enlighten people. Enlightenment. The music is language.

We speak a language, like you wake up and play a tune or a record and maybe tomorrow you play something else. It’s just like that; it fits the day. We have a variety of things we do. Like when you listen to music, you’re hearing something, and then there’s the next day. Just like life is. Every morning, you don’t have to drink coffee. One morning, you drink some tea. That’s the vibration of the day. These vibrations now call for quiet. We play some swing. Like Duke says, ‘It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.’ We swing along and play in these times. DB

Updated Nov. 9

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