Two Sun Ra Arkestra Vets -Tyler Mitchell & Marshall Allen, Lead Slimmed-Down Sextet On ‘Dancing Shadows’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Bassist Tyler Mitchell and alto Saxophonist/EVI Player Marshall Allen first met as band members of the cosmic Sun Ra Arkestra in the mid-eighties. Of course, the 97-year-old Marshall, the Arkestra’s current director, has been a member of the band since the late fifties and assumed its leadership upon Sun Ra’s passing in 1993. Mitchell rejoined the Arkestra in the past decade, after exploring other paths. So, the two are well acquainted with each other and are teaming on a new project that comprises Sun Ra tunes and band member contributions in a session that encompasses both free and arranged jazz. Like the iconic Sun Ra’s music, this is an amalgam of blues and roots, combined with space-oriented improvisations. The sextet is saxophone heavy with Chris Hemingway on tenor, Nicoletta Manzini on alto, and Marshall on both alto and EVI (Electronic Voice Instrument). Joining Mitchell in the rhythm section for Dancing Shadows are drummer Wayne Smith and percussionist Elson Nascimento. All are current members of the Arkestra, with Hemingway its newest.

The album is mostly the vision of Mitchell who has long straddled conventional jazz and the avant-garde. During his period with the Arkestra in the ‘80s, he was impressed with Sun Ra’s ability to combine free jazz with standards and Fletcher Henderson arrangements and when he left the Arkestra he became one of the most in-demand hard bop bassists. Of course, Marshall, born in 1924, and with seven and half decades in the Arkestra, has lived through all major periods of jazz, even the swing era. So, Mitchell had long sought to collaborate with him and tap into this deep well with a smaller unit.

If you’ve been fortunate to see Allen play live, you know that he plays the alto like a guitarist, stroking the keys or repeatedly hitting them for trills, screeches, and howls. Don’t expect many fluid notes in his non-chordal approach. Similarly, he evokes sounds ranging from stormy winds to birdsongs on his EWI. Much of this is due to Marshall’s restless nature and experimentation over the years that found him playing flute, oboe, piccolo, and EVI (a brass and wind-based controller for synthesizer). That James Spaulding was initially Sun Ra’s main alto player also forced Marshall to develop other instruments. As you listen to Dancing Shadows, Marshall’s playing on both instruments is eminently identifiable. This is just a brief excerpt of Mitchell commenting on Marshall – “Marshall will improvise on the spot. And if a song’s too nice and neat and clean and all too perfect, he’ll come and just mess it all up…He likes to have chaos. Because he believes there are no wrong notes you know.?” The other two saxes are more conventional and playing in unison at least as often as they solo. 

The album kicks off with six consecutive Sun Ra pieces, most drawn from early periods. Although Marshall was aboard for all of them, there are new lines and new arrangements for them, including “A Call for Demons,” “Angels and Demons at Play,” “Carefree,” “Dancing Shadows,” “Enlightenment,” and “Interstellar Loways.” The set also includes Monk’s “Skippy,” three from Mitchell, and two from Mancini. These come with a dose of humor too. For example, Mitchell entitled one of his, “Marshall the Deputy” because that’s what Sun Ra used to call him. He wrote two tunes for Mancini – “Nico” and “Nico Revisited.” These two titles, “Space Travelers” and “Spaced Out” would have most guessing they were penned by Sun Ra, but they are the two Mancini contributions, two of the wildest ones here. In fact, the album builds toward that as the opening “Call for All Demons” is straight-ahead. Marshall immediately signals things will be getting more ‘out there’ with his EVI whooshing sounds in “Angels and Demons at Play,” which create an interesting contrast to Hemingway’s low tenor tones. One also notices the deft, creative drumming of Smith here, another fascinating aspect of the sound to focus on.

“Carefree,” like several others, has Mitchell leading in with a bass line, smooth blowing from the saxes in mid-tempo disrupted by Marshall’s bleating entrances. The title track amps up the tempo into an all-out blowing free-for-all while the longer “Enlightenment,” beginning with Mitchell’s bowed intro, is an arranged piece with both ensemble parts and room to stretch out for all three of the saxes to Mitchell’s walking bass line and steady rhythms. Marshall’s alto solo here is the epitome of his penchant to play virtually any note, however strident, but somehow it works. By now, you’ve come to expect it. The final Sun Ra piece, the longest at seven minutes plus, “Interstellar Loways,”is another orchestral arrangement, finding Marshall again in the ‘bad boy’ role, intervening in the smooth, flowing solos of the two horns, who adhere more to hard bop styles.

“Marshall’s the Deputy” is essentially a feisty dialogue between the bassist, drummer, and Marshall – core avant-garde with all three absolutely playing with abandon. The two “Nico” pieces are calmer and with beautiful harmonics between Mancini and Hemingway, seemingly with Allen laying out. The playful take on Monk’s “Skippy” is pure fun, with tight ensemble parts and brilliant spots from all, especially Smith, as Marshall here is relatively restrained. The two Mancini pieces, first the brief “Space Travelers” and then “Spaced Out’’ expectedly take us the outer realms of free blowing and more of Marshall’s creative use of the EVI.

Listen closely and you’ll hear styles of jazz from the big band charts to hard bop to pure free expression. It’s not only a worthy listen but one you’ll come back to, fearing you must have missed something the first time.

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