Its leader died eight years ago, but the Sun Ra Arkestra carries on, with its strange combination of big-band swing, groove-heavy blues, and extraterrestrial aspiration. Herman Blount, the keyboardist and arranger whose Sun Ra moniker became synonymous with jazz adventurousness and utopianism, made a passel of records on various obscure labels for a good 40 years before passing away in 1993. Distinguished by such titles as Where Pathways Meet, Blues on Planet Mars, and Space Is the Place, they featured biting solos, oddball voicing, and surprising instrumentation. Like the aggregations of pianist/arranger Fletcher Henderson (with whom Sun Ra cut his teeth) and Count Basie, the Arkestra swings. In the late '90s, this large band from Philadelphia reemerged under the direction of Marshall Allen, the tart-toned alto saxophonist who for so many years played second fiddle to premier Arkestra saxman John Gilmore, who died in 1995. In 1999, the Arkestra, under the direction of the smoother, more predictable Allen, released A Song for the Sun. Like many earlier Arkestra records, it ties spacy originals to imaginatively rearranged standards and deep, leisurely blues. There are standout tracks, like the sensual, biting "They're Peepin'," a lucid "There Will Never Be Another You," and the creamy title tune, a showcase for the expressive Allen. There are losers, too, like "Spread Your Wings" (Art Jenkins's vocal is flat) and "Galactic Voyage," a not-altogether-successful marriage of the martial and the funereal. Although the Arkestra is long in the tooth, this album affirms how hard and imaginatively its members work. Like a jazz parallel to George Clinton, the Arkestra also puts on a handsome show, diverse in both costume and style.
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