Space is still the place

The Sun Ra Arkestra drops new music since, well...forever

Sun Ra Arkestra
Legendary Philadelphia funk and soul group The Sun Ra Arkestra recently released its first new music since 1999. | Image courtesy: STRUT/Sun Ra Arkestra archives

There are many things that many audiences miss about the loss of live staged musical events during this ever-lengthening pandemic.

Few regularly scheduled concert showcases currently lost to COVID-19 are as beloved and missed as the Sun Ra Arkestra’s deep dive into Halloween night at Johnny Brenda’s. The Hallowed eve party is not a long, lived-in tradition (yet), but a sturdy one, one that, since 2015, finds the Germantown-encamped, cosmically avant-garde, big band – led by 96-year-old saxophonist and composer Marshall Allen, an Arkestra member since 1957 who took over bandleader duties when Ra moved onto a higher celestial plane in 1993 – enveloping J-Brenda’s small stage like a spider’s web.

Not just because of its legion (12 to 16 members strong), and its friendly array of complex brass, reed and percussive instrumentation, but also the ensemble’s choice of long, wide, colorfully flowing robes in all their Saturn-al splendor, and its choice of toweringly floppy, Venusian headgear. 

If Space is the Place, as goes Ra’s longtime motto, they’re going to need all the universal room they can afford just to comfortably keep the Arkestra in check, and playing. Tightly squozen onto Brenda’s stage from the looks of this 2016 full concert footage (), Ra trumpeter Michael Ray – handpicked by Sun in 1978, and an Arkestra mainstay ever since – is the most jovial and playful of all the group.

Along with his mugging and acting out during this filmed 2016 gig, Ray put the interplanetary spectre of Sun Ra, the man and his music, into Afrofuturist perspective by intoning all gods and phantoms connected with this spookiest of holidays. 

“Sometimes you have to call upon some spirits,” said Ray during the 2016 clip, before introducing a woozy, boo-zy version of the “Casper the Friendly Ghost” cartoon theme song. “Most of the ghosts that pop up, they have their own things to say, but this is a friendly ghost.”

Sun Ra, June Tyson, John Gilmore, Eddie Gale and Danny Ray Thompson (the latter two having passed away in 2020) are just some of the warm, friendly Arkestra ghosts whose spirits Ray, Marshall Allen and Knoell Scott conjure up on a regular basis. Most particularly, these same spirits happily haunt the good grooves of Ra standards and Allen originals that fill “Swirling” – the first new full-length from the Sun Ra Arkestra since 1999 – playing alongside still-living Arkestra members whose calling is to provoke, tease, balm, bruise, boisterously laugh up a storm, and, in accordance with Sun’s own rules, practice and pray. 

Michael and Laranah Phipps-Ray and their musical efforts ensure that Space will always be the Place. | Image: STRUT archives

“Ra said that all that practice and prayer will get you through anything,” said Ray on a hot summer’s night in August, after having played at the Arkestra’s communal live-and-work space in Germantown – masked and safely distanced – with a 10-year-old neighbor playing drums. “Act with a sense of urgency and move with alacrity.” That’s easy to say for Ray, a trumpeter who is staunchly masterful as he is madly adventurous, as willing to ride along the precipice of tradition (be it New Orleans’ parish parade funk or Philly-intensive R&B) and free jazz futurism with each and every lick.

Moving with such fevered zeal and studied dedication has not only gotten Ray through the Arkestra (according to both Ray and Allen, Ra was a hardcore taskmaster and teacher), such guiding principles have pushed the jovial trumpeter, composer and arranger through storied sessions with Philly’s own Patti Labelle, Fat Larry’s Band, Byard Lancaster, The Delfonics and The Stylistics, a long membership in the brass section and writing team of Kool & the Gang, a bit of live recording wih Phish, the leadership of his own, self-named, funky Ra-inlfuenced ensemble, Cosmic Krewe (they have a new single, “Covid-19 PSA”), and a working relationship with his wife, Laranah Phipps-Ray in her band of “Sun Ra’s Angels,” La Funkalicious. 

“In everything that we do, say, play and sing, we are satellites of Sun Ra, his music and belief systems,” said Phipps-Ray of what Ra himself called an “equation” – not a philosophy – based on logic and touching on elements of Gnostic teachings, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry and Egyptian Mysticism. Most of all, Ra’s collective vision has long been made him an avatar of Afrofuturism, along with author Octavia Butler, photographer Renee Cox and painter Angelbert Metoyer – all leading the way from the African diaspora through to the rich diversity of various technocultures and science fictions.

“People are hungry for this sort-of spiritual sustenance,” said Ray last week, not long after he and his wife finished several recording sessions with the Barenaked Ladies’ Kevin Hearn, with whom they played many times in the past (their collaborative single “Hello” is due out shortly). 

“The aura of all the negative forces that we’re being subjected to at this particular time made it crucial that a positive force – the sound of ‘Swirling’ – be unleashed. And there’s always more music coming as Marshall writes every day, and I write every day and Laranah writes every day. If space is the place, there’s music to go with that. ‘COVID-19 PSA’ is a blip of many blips to come. And “Swirling” is the tip of the iceberg as to what Sun and Marshall have.”

The first night that I spoke with Michael and Larranah Phipps-Ray, they were laughing about a summer’s storm blackout in their family home of Trenton, NJ, that they had just experienced before my call. They weren’t panicked in the dark. “As long as there’s candles to be lit, we’re fine,” said Phipps-Ray with a laugh. 

“Besides, there’s always a light,” said Ray, quietly, without stating whether the glow of which he spoke came from the heavens or emanated from another galaxy.

Drums, trumpets and enchanting vocals have been a mainstay of Sun Ra in all of its iterations. | Image: STRUT Archives

The sound of a storm’s thunderclaps and the roar of lightyears is but another instrument – a processional drum, a winnowing holler – to a man who has played through flurries of hyperactive oddball time signatures, chanted vocals, Ellington-ian Harlem Nocturnal fantasias, psychedelic organ-grinding, Egyptian blues motifs, sambas and what could pass for elephants braying on aptly-titled Ra studio albums such as 1978’s “Lanquidity,” 1980’s “Strange Celestial Road,” 1992’s “Destination Unknown” – even this week’s “Swirling” – to say nothing of genuinely countless official, and unofficial, live Sun albums. Throw in what Ray has executed on his own Cosmic Krewe albums such as “Funk If I Know,” and his newest single, and the very real sound of an Orleans’ parish second line party comes into the light.

“Yeah, Cosmic Krewe is a lot more direct than the Arkestra, but it’s just another part of the same hemisphere,” said Ray, as if the gutsy funk of his bawdy band’s music is but a dirtier ring around Saturn.

How Trenton-born Ray, then his wife Laranah, got to Saturn by way of Germantown all started with Ra’s voluminous catalog of music – an array of 80-plus studio-made and live recorded albums from Ra’s start in 1953 up until the point where Ray entered the Arkestra in 1978. “I didn’t know his music, then suddenly I was confronted with all of it at once,” said Ray of meeting Ra during one of the latter’s famed, epic Germantown concerts in Vernon Park. At the time, Ray was playing trumpet in the John Minnis’ Big Bone Band, and was preparing to commence work with Kool & the Gang for its “Everybody’s Dancin’” album.

“You looked at the members of Ra’s Arkestra on the bandstand then, and every one of them had stacks upon stacks of sheet music piled high under their chairs. Not like the regular thing where you have all of the music on a stand in front of you. This was stacked high like phone books, because Ra had so much stuff broken down by his own genres: standards, stomps, Fletcher Henderson material, Jimmy Lunceford stuff. There were more stacks dedicated to his arrangements – very singular – as every song he wrote had very particular structures. All I could think was ‘Wow, how do these cats keep all that music straight?’ But, they did because the music was amazing.” Add to the Arkestra’s sonic display, two fancifully adorned drum kits, fire eaters, dancers and chanters running around, singing “space is the place,” and Ray was hooked. “I had never seen anything like that.”

Ray eventually found out how Ra kept his ensemble unified and playing through the grand constructs of his complex, spacious music, courtesy of stringent teaching sessions and monk-like discipline. Before that though, things were casual between him and Ra with the two of them running into each other on the 23 trolley running through Germantown. “I wound bump into Sun on the trolley, and he was always quick to invite me to rehearsal by saying, ‘Get ready to go to Egypt,’” recalled Ray with a laugh.

It took Ray a few invitations to get to the three-story, Sun Ra commune on Morton Street, but when he did he found a row home filled, floor to ceiling, with amps, instruments, cassettes, reel-to-reel tapes and all such musical ephemera. “They had tapes in the refrigerator, no exaggeration,” he said. “Sun looked around and said, ‘I know everything that you need to know about music,’ which was apparent. He asked me if I knew how to play ‘Ladybird’ (a jazz standard composed by Tadd Dameron), which I did. Then he remarked how ‘Ladybird’ had the same chord changes as his ‘Half Nelson.’ So he got John Gilmore down the steps to play one, while I played the other – then he had us both do each song, together, in 5/4 time. Then 6/8. Then he would tell us where to solo, and in which keys. And he kept doing this, for hours. A whole day had gone by into evening.”

Trumpeter Michael Ray has been a mainstay in the Arkestra since 1978. | Image courtesy: STRUT/Sun Ra Arkestra archives

When the next visit to the Ra row home came, Ray and other Arkestra members, living in the house, fell into the same patterns. According to Ray, and other Arkestra members I have interviewed over the decades, that is how people wound up living at the Morton Street house: They just played and played there until they wound up becoming part of the family and the furniture. “That exposure to, and relationship with Ra and that music, that was invaluable to me – a wealth of what to play and how to play it,” said Ray. “Everybody stays there because of the music.”

Moving into the “Sun Ra institution” was a 24/7 proposition, not a set of classroom sessions, and lessons, but rather a lifestyle. Ray recalled Ra knocking on the trumpeter’s bedroom door at 3am, asking him to play a line or a song that Ra had just composed minutes prior. “Try this. Try this. Marshall (Allen, the leader and housemaster presently) is the same way, the same creative genius. After Sun died, and before I moved out (in the early 90s, to New Orleans where Ray’s Cosmic Krewe was founded), Marshall would wake me up the same way. ‘Play what you don’t know.’ That was a favorite of Marshall’s that he got from living in the Ra house long before I got there.” 

Ray, who also fondly recalls the Horo sessions (“my first encounter outside the U. was in Milano with Sun”) that brought him to the Arkestra, and early albums such as “Disco 3000,” talked about the joys of communal living like a military lifer. Sure, they lived “like monks,” and maybe Ray had to ask Ra’s permission to take a girlfriend to the movies (“Perhaps,” said Ra, “but, there’s a battle on this planet hanging in the balance, and swinging on your horn. Play this, and we’ll see”). But Ray also looked forward to the daily meals with his Arkestra brethren and remembered never wanting to get up from a rehearsal until he got his taste of Sun’s famous Moon Stew. “He would have the pot boiling, this African vegetable soup, and you could smell it all throughout the house.” And Ray always appreciated Ra, the jokester, as much as he learned from Ra, the holy man and devout musical force. “He could play and tease about anything and everything, but, when it came to the music, he was always serious.”

As enveloping as the Ra life and house was, Ray’s own good grooves and big funk – combined with the pageantry he acquired from being in the Arkestra – helped him to further his relationship with Kool & the Gang (“we really learned to put on a show,” said Ray of the Hollywood Swingers) and develop slick signatures for his own Cosmic Krewe. “Always be entertaining, and stay dressed up was Ra’s thing … he wouldn’t even allow us to wear dungarees in the hotels we stayed at while on tour. If we played a festival where other bands were, he had us change our costumes three times a day.”

Making a solar show of the music, from his intergalactic uniforms to its use of dancers, neon sculptures, holograms and vividly colorful backdrops has forever been a highlight of the Cosmic Krewe’s presentations. Even the now-popular, crimson-spiked, microbial ball signifying the genetic strands of the pandemic looks like Christmas balls as they adorn the sleeve to Ray’s new “Covid-19 PSA.”

The music of Cosmic Krewe – a winnowing psychedelic funk sound, comparable to, say, Parliament running wild in the swamps of Louisiana – is blunter and more direct than any free form jazz executed by the Arkestra. But, according to Ray, the Krewe’s experimentalism and improvisation comes strictly from the Sun. “Between Ra and Marshall – my roommate on the road for years – they schooled me. Shit, I didn’t know anything really … until them. They’re double Geminis with many of the same attributes and outer space leanings.”

Ray was quick to praise the making of “Swirling,” the first new studio session with the Arkestra in forever. “There’s always been a push for new music, especially since Marshall has been playing around with the kora and the EVI,” said Ray. “Marshall has at least 100 finished songs of his own that we have yet to have played. The sound of his kora alone is gorgeous. He’s my roommate on the road, and his songs on the kora are lullabies as they put me to sleep every night.”

Recorded at Philly’s Rittenhouse SoundWorks with producer Jim Hamilton, the bold, bright tones of the album’s mix, one where every instrument is crystal clear (“There’s been years with this Arkestra where you couldn’t hear a flute or couldn’t make out an oboe,” stated the trumpeter. “The first thing we worked on here, with the music of ‘Swirling,’ was how you should and could hear … differentiate … each sound”) seems driven as much by Ray’s need for clarity and focus, as it is Allen’s desire to sail across the universe.

If Ray’s Cosmic Krewe is a satellite of the Arkestra, so too is La Funkalicious, his wife Laranah Phipps-Ray’s future-forward, female funk-free jazz ensemble. 

The lead vocalist and dancer for Cosmic Krewe, as well as the frontwoman of La Funkalicious, has a powerful, five-octave range, as well as her own jazz legacy to contend with as the daughter of Newark, NJ, saxophonist Gene Phipps, Sr. Famed for gigs with Wardell Gray, her father is but the patriarch to a long continuum – Newark’s first family of jazz – that includes pianists Ernest and Nat, drummer Harold, tenor saxophonist Bill, music teacher Annie and flautist Gene Jr.  And like her husband, she didn’t really know Sun Ra’s music or life lessons until she got up close to it.

“I didn’t even really know who Michael was until I was scheduled to to interview him as part of an R&B Awards affair … I mean, Kool & the Gang wasn’t on my radar, ever,” she said laughing. “We didn’t meet there, though, as I had several gigs that day, and instead met at the Trenton Music Symposium. I don’t know … there was something about the two of us together, a connection that was undeniable.” 

Call it cosmic, as she does, kismet, desire or something else altogether, Ray and Phipps have been together ever since, based on the Ra-esque concepts of “something deeper than marriage, something harmonious in the heavens as well as music,” said Phipps-Ray. “We’re bound to the cosmos. To astrology. And I think that Michael and I had the same information regarding all matters of Afrofuturism and all matters celestial too, just from different planes of learning. I worked for the government in the studies of space, and in terms of my faith, I have always been more spiritual than I am religious and have always wanted to know where all of this comes from. Long before Sun Ra, this is who Michael is as well.”

Discussing the feminine energy of La Funkalicious and Cosmic Krewer and its connections to Ra interplanetary complexion, both Ray and Phillips-Ray recall the relationship to, and the participation of, June Tyson within Sun’s Arkestra, she being the late, great vocalist, violinist, costume designer, choreographer sole woman in Ra’s band. Celebrated in 2019 with the buzzing Bandcamp release of “Saturnian Queen Of The Sun Ra Arkestra,” I report back to Ray and his wife how all of my earliest sightings of Sun Ra – be it in the basement of he African-Merican History Museum, the Community Education Center, the Longmarch Arts Center, St. Mary’s Church or the Painted Bride – all included Tyson leading the parade stroll through the crowd with a smiling Ra and an unsmiling Ra pulling up the rear.

“June used to say that ‘I am not a female, I am an angel,’” said Michael happily.

“That’s why we are Sun Ra’s angels,” said Phipps-Ray of La Funkalicious. “We are carrying on in her spirit, her essence. I see that same spirit in what Lady Gaga does, and what Solange does as well. It is a sisterhood. But, it goes beyond being women into something cosmic.”

Talking over a speaker phone, Ray and Phipps-Ra both giggle a little bit as they lay claim to the kinetic and to the cosmos.

“That’s why we are Sun Ra’s angels. We are carrying on in her spirit, her essence. I see that same spirit in what Lady Gaga does, and what Solange does as well. It is a sisterhood. But, it goes beyond being women into something cosmic.”

– La Funkalicious member Larannah Phipps-Ray

“We know that people don’t believe us or think that we’re kidding,” said Phipps-Ray of the couple’s beliefs.

“Or that this is all a game, like an act,” said Ray. 

“This, though, all of this, is very real for us and to us,” said Phipps-Ray. “Look, we are a beacon of light. Animals in our neighborhood all come to our house, and big or small, we feed them. We know that people think that is strange. That is our spirit. We talk to the trees on our block. We share that vibration. When you take yourself out of the center of that universe, you can live as one with the universe. People have a job. Elephants have a job. Trees have a job. We, together – Michael and I – are attracted to these souls. It might sound crazy, but it is how we live. And we don’t put labels on it.”

Married to the spirit of Sun Ra as well as showing who they are as singular and collective artists, Michael Ray states that theirs is the music of spectral ascendancy. “What we do is transcendent, and takes into account the whole spectrum of the spiritual and the intergalactic as well as a school of pageantry, all of which I learned from Sun Ra,” said Ray. “Laranah and I speak of this all the time as a continuation of Sun Ra, and how the tradition continues. That was our instruction from him – bring it all into the future.”

Whether Ray is playing together with his wife in Cosmic Krewe, or she with La Funkalicious, or the trumpeter with the Arkestra, it is all part of the very same continuum, one that goes from the ancient to the future and back again. “And that interplanetary arc is its own crescendo,” said Ray. 

  • A.D. Amarosi's Headshot

    A.D. Amorosi is a Philadelphia-based journalist who, along with Philadelphia Weekly, writes for numerous local, national and international publications including Variety and the Philadelphia Inquirer.