Earth Couldn’t Contain Sun Ra’s Ideas. His Arkestra Is Still Exploring Them.

“Swirling,” the group’s first album of new recordings in 20 years, is an affirmation of how vital the band remains under the direction of the saxophonist Marshall Allen, 96.

PHILADELPHIA — In the early 2000s, the pianist Farid Barronread that his idol John Coltrane had once received a papyrus from Sun Ra that was said to stop time.

“That’s why I came over here, to look for the manuscript,” Mr. Barron, 49, said on a recent Saturday afternoon, standing on the steps outside the Arkestral Institute of Sun Ra, where he now lives. An unassuming stone rowhouse in this city’s Germantown neighborhood, it is where Ra — a pianist, composer, poet and mystic whose influence on culture has only seemed to grow since his death in 1993 — held court for the last quarter-century of his life. Members of his ensemble, the Sun Ra Arkestra, continue to live and rehearse there, surrounded by his artifacts and aura.

So did Mr. Barron ever find the papyrus? Not exactly, he said, but “in a roundabout way, I found an answer to stopping time.”

It happened on his first gig with the Arkestra, in 2006. With the band careening into a hailstorm of free improvisation, he felt lost. “I thought it was cacophony,” he said. So he decided to attempt some of the difficult piano runs he’d been struggling with. “In that moment, all the stuff I had been working on by Art Tatum that I couldn’t execute, now I could,” Mr. Barron said. “In that sort of environment, where there’s no strict time and the energy is just flowing — that’s when I started to understand.”

As a robed, serene-faced Sun Ra says of his band in the 1974 film “Space Is the Place,” “We work on the other side of time.”

That perspective-slanting, potential-opening energy is best experienced live, of course, and without the pandemic, this weekend would probably have offered an ideal opportunity: The Arkestra, whose members always perform in shimmering regalia, has a long history of Halloween concerts. The next-best option is picking up “Swirling,” the group’s first album of new recordings in 20 years, due on Friday.




Marshall Allen