If there’s any proof to the notion that music can bridge generations, this is it. Veteran jazz bassist Tyler Mitchell, 63, played alongside alto saxophone icon Marshall Allen, 97, with Sun Ra’s Arkestra in the 1980s. While they’ve gone on a variety of separate paths in the decades since, everything beautifully clicks into place on Dancing Shadows, their exquisite new collaboration.
Bandleader Mitchell brought in the still-vibrant nonagenarian Allen and a highly-skilled group of additional players: Chris Hemmingway on tenor saxophone, Nicoletta Manzini on alto saxophone, drummer Wayne Smith and percussionist Elson Nascimento. Dancing Shadows often leans heavily on the cacophonous free jazz so often associated with Mitchell and Allen’s former employer, as well as his penchant for spacey, groove-oriented performances. A handful of the songs on Dancing Shadows are Sun Ra compositions, including the majestic opener, “Interstellar Lowways”. The gentle, swinging vibe is soon broken wide open with Allen’s clarion squeals as if summoning the late Ornette Coleman from the grave.
Elsewhere, original compositions fit in perfectly with the well-chosen covers. Manzini’s “Spaced Out” recalls the science fiction landscape of classic Sun Ra, with Allen’s EVI (which stands for electronic valve instrument) gliding over the ensemble’s flurry of post-bop improvisation. And while Allen’s astonishing skill constantly flies in the face of his advanced years, Mitchell’s bass playing is a wonder to behold. He continually adds the right amount of groove to the proceedings, on tracks like Sun Ra’s “Angels and Demons at Play” and the playful shuffle of “Enlightenment”, which manages to infuse a blues/jazz hybrid strut that would make Charles Mingus proud.
Another delightful high point on Dancing Shadows is an interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s “Skippy”. Favoring a straight-up funk beat, the song underscores Monk’s playfully quirkiness, with Mitchell and Allen both taking on impressive solos. But songs like “Space Travelers” and “Marshall the Deputy” (the latter a reference to Sun Ra’s nickname for Allen) emphasize this ensemble’s love for atonal free-jazz freak-outs.
Dancing Shadows checks off a variety of boxes: it embraces free jazz, documents the genre’s penchant for blues and funk underpinnings, and – best of all – is a delightfully enjoyable sonic experience.