PHILADELPHIA — In the early 2000s, the pianist Farid Barron read 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.
This far-ranging double-LP serves as a fabulous introduction for newcomers to the Arkestra’s sonic universe, and an affirmation for old fans of how vital the band remains under the direction of the saxophonist Marshall Allen, who at 96 has devoted two-thirds of his life to playing Ra’s music.
On “Swirling,” named for the album’s one Allen composition, the Arkestra wraps its arms around a huge range of musical history: swing, early rock ’n’ roll, Chicago blues, avant-garde improvisation, abstract electronics. An undercurrent of darkness and portentous mystery courses throughout — evoked by low-stirring reeds, a crisscross of percussionists and drummers, or the band members’ baritones uniting in a chanted chorus.
This deep, unsettling hue ties into what Ra describes in “Space Is the Place,” explaining his understanding of the cosmos. “Space is not only high,” he says. “It’s low. It’s a bottomless pit. There is no end to it.”
Ra’s aphorisms and poetry — which he called “equations” — were as much a part of his art as the music, and he came to rely on the stately vocalist June Tyson to carry his messages. Tara Middleton, a vocalist and violinist, joined the band in 2012 and picked up where Tyson left off. She too happens to be a poet with cosmic inclinations; she has been writing her own extensions on Ra’s poetry, and on “Swirling” they blend seamlessly.
“The music is overwhelming, because there’s so much depth to it,” Ms. Middleton said in a phone interview. “But his poetry speaks from such a clear point of view, so poignantly. When you think about the world today and you think about what he was talking about all those years ago, it’s relevant.”
In an essay this summer for The New York Review of Books, the critic and scholar Namwali Serpell ponders the contemporary resonance of “Space Is the Place,” in which Ra seeks to assemble a space program to help Black people escape from Earth. Dr. Serpell takes a particular interest in a scene where Ra describes himself as “everythin’ and nothin’.” In his insistence on darkness and disappearance, she sees not self-annihilation, but a will toward utter rebirth.
“Sun Ra’s art in all forms offers this challenge to Black people: If we’re nothing, if we’re just myths, why not make that literal, why not make it material?” she writes. “Why not create, why not become, glittering black matter?”
Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount in 1914, and named for the Southern mystic and performer Black Herman, whose occult stage show had thrilled Blount’s mother. Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., he went by Sonny, and was recognized early on as a musical prodigy. A straight-A student at Industrial High School, he became inculcated with Booker T. Washington’s belief in industriousness and technical skill.
But his mind ran from mathematics to music to grander questions, about whether a more humane species than this one might exist somewhere. Sun Ra later spoke of having been visited by extraterrestrials in his teens, and sometimes said he himself hailed from Saturn.
If space was a possible future, the guiding truths of the past came mostly from Africa. Studying ancient texts and world histories as well as astronomy books, he came to see himself as an emissary of Nubian culture, and the pilot of an even more ambitious endeavor than Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line: a project to transcend the earthly realm.
After moving to Chicago in the 1940s, he doubled as a musician and a street preacher, delivering sermons and pamphlets alongside Black Muslim converts and Christian evangelists. And he assembled a devoted band, playing jazz with an eerie magnetism that only sometimes sounded like it belonged in a dance hall. Together with the South Side impresario Alton Abraham, Ra began a series of business ventures, many of which didn’t last. One that did was El Saturn, a record label they started in the mid-50s; Ra’s first releases on it ranged between doo-wop, pop and space-age jazz.
Marshall Allen remembers hearing more proselytizing than music at his first rehearsal in 1957; he didn’t play his horn at all.
“He was gathering up recruits,” Mr. Allen said, seated on a folding chair outside the Germantown house alongside fellow Arkestra saxophonist Knoel Scott. “I’d just listen, while he’s talking about all this other stuff: ancient Egypt and the Bible,” he said. “I couldn’t fit in yet no way, because I didn’t know the philosophy.”
But once he grew into the band, Mr. Allen found that Ra listened back closely to his contributions. The bandleader’s method was to ensure that he “tailor made” each individual part for the musician he was writing for, Mr. Allen said. “That way, you get the talent out of everybody.” He then heard how the group handled the music, and allowed it to evolve.
“It changed every day, that’s why you had to be there every day,” Mr. Allen said. “Tomorrow, if you don’t come to rehearsal, you don’t have a part anymore. So then you come back the third day and you get a new part.”
Mr. Allen has kept up a similar method in his time as band director. “Sun Ra was such a grand figure, nobody really listened to the band,” Mr. Scott said. After Ra’s death, “Marshall had to establish that we have the music, and this band is an excellent band.” Especially since the centennial of his birth in 2014, the Arkestra has worked constantly, touring almost as if Ra were still on this planet.
The coronavirus, of course, halted that, but the band has still been holding rehearsals — carefully, with close attention to social distancing — usually with only a few members present.
Even at 96, well into his sixth decade playing Ra’s music, Mr. Allen continues to make discoveries. Sun Ra recorded virtually every rehearsal, leaving behind thousands of tapes. He has been listening back to them for years, and every so often he finds something remarkable. One tune on “Swirling,” a wobbly waltz titled “Darkness,” was the product of that archival work. It had never been officially recorded or performed by the Arkestra until Mr. Allen transcribed it from the tape and taught it to the current band.
Asked what else he has been listening to recently, besides that bottomless trove of unheard Ra recordings, Mr. Allen paused. “What else is there?” he said.
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