PHILADELPHIA — Marshall Allen is sitting on the stoop of the Pharaoh’s Den, the Germantown rowhouse that’s been band headquarters of the Sun Ra Arkestra since 1968.
Resplendent in a red-and-gold vest, the bearded 96-year-old Arkestra leader is seated beside his righthand man, fellow alto sax player Knoel Scott, who’s outfitted in purple and gold, puffing on a cigarette.
The two are sitting for a sunny afternoon Zoom interview on the auspicious occasion of the release of “Swirling” (Strut, 3.5 stars), the first new Sun Ra Arkestra studio album in over 20 years.
Since 1995, Allen has led the band that’s dedicated to the music and vision of the late Herman “Sonny” Blount (1914-1993), the Afro-Futurist composer who renamed himself Sun Ra after visiting Saturn in an interplanetary vision.
In addition to sax, the irrepressibly energetic avant-garde jazzman Allen plays flute, oboe, and an electronic wind instrument called an EVI.
‘Space music and skull-busting songs’
The squiggly, futuristic sounds of that instrument are heard prominently on the vital, thoroughly impressive “Swirling,” which features new recordings of nine Sun Ra standards, plus two songs written by Allen and a track from film composer Thomas Newman.
The wide-ranging album moves through big-band swing, otherworldly doo-wop, and electronic noise. It mixes the diverse influences that course through Sun Ra’s cacophonous music, from Fletcher Henderson to Schoenberg to John Cage, says trumpeter Michael Ray.
“It’s got space music and skull-busting songs,” Ray says, Zooming in from his home in Trenton.
“Swirling” includes contributions from saxophonist Danny Ray Thompson and conga player Stanley Morgan, both of whom have died since it was recorded in 2018 at Rittenhouse Soundworks, not far from the Pharaoh’s Den, on Morton Street. (Ra bought the house from Allen’s father for $1). Allen, Scott, and a few other members of the 15-or-so-piece band still reside there.
Most of the “Swirling” songs were written in the house, also known as the Arkestral Institute of Sun Ra, whose walls are adorned with ancient Egyptian art. Sun Ra had conducted daily rehearsals there. Under Allen, the frequency has been cut to three times a week, reduced to one since the pandemic began.
The band originally came to Philadelphia to make joyful noise amid peace and quiet, Allen says. “We moved down here so we could have space and time. New York was a little too busy. Here, we could stay home and play music at night.”
Sun Ra had put a darker spin on relocating. “To save the planet, I had to go to the worst spot on earth,” he once said, “and that was Philadelphia, which was death’s headquarters.”
Under Allen’s leadership, the Arkestra has focused on live performance, rather than make new recordings that would compete with the enormous amount of Sun Ra’s material that’s already available.
Much of that has been reissued since his centenary in 2014, when Strut put out the excellent Allen-curated primer, “In the Orbit of Ra.” There has also been a flood of Ra releases on the music platform Bandcamp, where over 100 albums are available.
Among the most intriguing is “June Tyson: Saturnian Queen of the Sun Ra Arkestra,” a collection highlighting Tyson, who died in 1992 and was the band’s only female vocalist before current singer Tara Middleton. Another highlight is “Haverford College, 1980,” a rare recording of Ra playing solo on a Fender Rhodes electric piano. It set the spaceways abuzz when it was released last December.
Touring, with alacrity
But while eschewing the recording studio, the band has toured the world with astonishing regularity, considering their leader is a nonagenarian. (Allen’s history with Ra dates back to the 1950s, after a 10-year stint in the U.S. Army in which he helped liberate Sicily, along with concentration camps in Germany and Austria.)
“Marshall has this feeling of alacrity, of enjoying what he’s doing,” says trumpeter Ray.
The 67-year-old horn man, who got his start with Patti LaBelle and the Delfonics, began playing with Sun Ra in the 1970s and has since split his touring time between the Arkestra and Kool & the Gang.
He recalls a recent tour that took the Sun Ra Arkestra to Tuva, the Russian republic in southern Siberia where throat singers excel at singing two pitches at the same time.
“We’re traveling across the Himalayas in a Russian transport with no shocks,” Ray recalls. “I’m looking down over the side of the road saying, ‘I can’t take this!’ And I look over at Marshall and he’s just sitting there. So in my mind, I’m like, I don’t have a right to complain about any of this, if he isn’t.”
Carrying a legacy forward
“Marshall is the maestro,” says Middleton, 40, a classically trained violinist who became an Arkestra acolyte after seeing a gig at the Painted Bride in 2000. “He is the leader.” She joined in 2012 as a violinist, and after two years studying with Allen became lead vocalist.
“Marshall is always about the legacy of the music, and making sure it’s performed properly,” says Middleton, who’s married to Arkestra guitarist Dave Hotep.
Middleton, who wrote lyrics for “Swirling”’s title cut one day at rehearsal, at Allen’s instruction, spoke on Zoom from a location she would only reveal as “out here, somewhere.”
The band never has a set list, so “when you’re on stage with Marshall and he points that finger at you, you better be ready,” she laughs. “It keeps you honest as an artist.”
COVID-19 and the spaceways
The coronavirus pandemic has shut down the band’s touring operation, and Middleton says, “I don’t even know that there is a word that can truly express” how much she misses performing.
Ray, who’s recovering from two knee operations, jokes that the COVID-19 shutdown is just another obstacle thrown at musicians trying to survive a disreputable business. “They say that the music industry is like a long plastic hallway where thieves and murderers run free and men and women die like dogs,” he says. “Then there’s the negative side.”
Scott, 74, is philosophical. The pandemic has allowed him “to concentrate on developing my understanding of music.”
Allen is sanguine. “I stay in the house on the piano, writing music for the band, all day and all night. I’m used to staying in.”
The band got together for an outdoor gig on Election Day, playing on a flatbed truck provided by the advocacy group Joy to the Polls at a South Philly polling place. “We were giving people something that they need,” says Scott. “We were doing our job.”
They hope “Swirling” “is of use to people to give them some happiness during this turbulent chunk of time,” Scott says. “You want to change your vibration a little bit, get away from COVID for awhile and travel the spaceways with us. “
At the sound of the word “spaceways,” Allen bursts into song.
“The space age is here to stay,” he sings. “There’s no place you can run away.”
He grins, and Scott joins him, joyfully singing the words of Sun Ra’s adaptation of the spiritual “No Hiding Place Down Here.”
“If you run to the rock to hide your face, the rock’ll cry out, ‘No hiding place!’”
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer