Time is an illusion. Just think of the 8-minute delay it takes for the sun to beam down to Earth, or the four years it takes for the light emanating from the nearest star to our solar system, Proxima Centauri, to reach our eyes. Or the very distant stars in our galaxy, whose light has yet to reach us. So even though history tells us that Sun Ra left Earth back in 1993, his music still acts like one of those distant celestial bodies, traveling from distant galaxies to reach us here, be it on massive transmissions like Egypt 1971 or cosmic wrinkles like Of Abstract Dreams. Swirling is billed as the first release by the Sun Ra Arkestra in 20 years, and while the man himself is not here in the flesh, his presence is undeniable, a guiding spirit that informs every sound on the album.
Helmed by Ra’s longtime reedman Marshall Allen, Swirling expands some of Ra’s most famous compositions and impossible-to-find deep cuts into stunning new vistas. Space chant standards like “Rocket Number 9” and “Satellites Are Spinning” are presented in striking new arrangements with fine additions from its newest members. Vocalist and violinist Tara Middleton, who joined in 2012, conjures legendary Ra acolyte June Tyson on “Satellites.” Ever so slowly, that number morphs into “Lights on a Satellite,” Dave Hotep’s guitar pulsing like a beacon all the while. Middleton also adds a strong, honeyed voice to “Sunology,” suggesting what Sarah Vaughn might have sounded like backed by the Arkestra.
The ease with which Allen gets the Arkestra to change mood and trajectory is masterful, controlled while also seeming to teeter on the brink of chaos. It conveys a drunken joy, though for Sun Ra fans, it’s more akin to floating in zero G’s. Allen also gets a songwriting credit on the title track. “Swirling” reveals a debt to both Ra and the late Duke Ellington, full of swinging elegance and big band sophistication, punctuated by pianist Farid Barron’s ebullient runs.
Yet another highlight is “Space Loneliness,” a languorous early Sun Ra single first released in 1960. Assembled here as a 12-minute configuration, it presents the full spectrum of Sun Ra’s canonical sound: blues, R&B, swing, jazz, stride piano, even space noise. By looking back as well as forging ahead, the Arkestra affirm their mission, even in the wake of their beloved leader’s absence. As Ra put it in the 1974 film Space Is the Place: “We work on the other side of time”—and that hasn’t changed in the least.