Germantown’s Sun Ra Arkestra shoot for the moon with new album, Living Sky

Sun Ra Arkestra
Matthew Hamilton /

The late Sun Ra, his large-scale Arkestra and its saxophonist-leader since Ra’s 1993 passing, Marshall Allen, have forever gone hand-in-hand with the neighborhood in which they live: Germantown. Whether dining together, en masse, on Ra’s beloved “Moon Stew” at the Arkestra’s communal live-and-work space in Germantown or playing funky, free jazz for locals, they are as cherished in Philly as they are worldwide, with Grammy nominations for the album, ‘Swirling’, to prove it.

“We loved getting nominated in 2021 – our Philadelphia bass-playing brother Christina McBride won that year – and are looking forward to another nomination this year,” says longtime Ra Arkestra trumpeter Michael Ray.

This year, the glory and the potential Grammy is all about ‘Living Sky’, their newest album released Oct. 7.

“We’re taking it easy this time out, but not too easy,” said Ray about tackling a handful of Marshall Allen’s newest songs and one old Ra favorite under the watchful gaze of French horn player and conductor, Vincent Chancey. “Vincent hurt his lip in a fall, but wound up guiding the Arkestra into some new sounds.”

Old dogs. New tricks. Pretty great for the Ra-based ensemble and it roots in the 1950s. “And Marshall? We’re just beginning to touch on his compositions on ‘Swirling’ and ‘Living Sky’ – he’s got hundreds of them we haven’t begin to play yet, and at 98-years-old, he’s still coming up with new ones all the time.”

Matthew Hamilton /

What ‘Swirling’ and ‘Living Sky’ have in common is that Allen, Ray and the rest of the gang – now including a trio of string players – have recorded their freshest albums at Germantown’s Rittenhouse SoundWorks, an old, bricked-up Chrysler autobody shop re-configured for tony film making and music recording.

“Space is the place, always,” says Michael Ray, using the Arkestra’s longtime motto as a metaphor for the roominess that Rittenhouse afforded the ensemble. “That studio has plenty of it, and everyone there is very cool. The Arkestra can truly do its thing there.”

Matthew Hamilton, the son of co-owner-producer-musician James Hamilton and Susan Deutsch, manages the studio and has long known, loved and integrated himself within the music of Sun Ra.

“We’ve worked with different members of the Arkestra over the years, including many their many solo projects, and before ‘Swirling’, recorded Marshall in smaller groups,” says Hamilton. “By that time, we were all used to working together in a creative environment, so our studio was the natural place for them to record. Besides we are located only a few blocks away from the historical Sun Ra House.”

Considering the shifting size of the Arkestra, Hamilton states that Rittenhouse SoundWorks throws everything at its SRA sessions — ‘Living Sky’ especially with its bringing in a string ensemble for the first time.

“We use mostly every mic, every preamp, and every square inch of our large studio complex,” says Hamilton. “This allows for the engineer to really dive deep into the sounds of the record and create something truly unique every time. Not all projects require that type of setup. And each time they come in, the sound is different. They do so much improv throughout the recording day that you never really know what you might get.

“We tend to just record pretty much the entire day since at any moment someone may drop a gem. I’ve seen Marshall just stand up and instruct the rest of the Arkestra what to play in real time. This creates a very natural and abstract way of making music.”

While Ray touches on ‘Marshall’s Groove’ as one of his favorites on ‘Living Sky’, Hamilton chooses the Arkestra’s instrumental re-configuration of Ra’s 1953 composition, ‘Somebody Else’s Idea.’

“’Somebody Else’s Idea’ was one of those pieces that came out very organically at the end of the recording day,” notes Hamilton. “You can hear people humming along in the room, which was definitely less planned compared to the original Sun Ra recorded version. Everyone humming along gives the feeling people are just hanging out and playing their instruments and singing along. The energy in the room while that was being recorded was incredible.”