BENEATH Sun Ra's cosmic regalia beats the heart of a swing era big bandleader. Even in concert, while exploring the outer reaches of jazz and otherwise happily pandering to intergalactic pandemonium, Ra and his Arkestra generally descend to earth long enough to recall the robust music of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford, either directly or in spirit. If you were to capture those moments on a studio album it would resemble "Reflections in Blue," one of the most accessible and ingratiating records Ra has ever released.
Sentiment and swing, derived respectively from Jerome Kern tunes and reed-riffing arrangements, provide the impetus here, just as clearly as Ra provides the personality and eccentricity. His electric keyboards and synthesizers are colorfully deployed on several tunes -- sometimes playfully, sometimes earnestly but always effectively. On Kern's "I Dream Too Much," Ra sings in a warble so off-key that he's not even within hailing distance of the melody at times, and yet his interpretation of the confessional lyric is richly poignant and romantic. When Ra sits down at the piano for the album's title tune, the mood harks back to Kansas City swing and the uncommon finesse of Basie's men.
As for Ra's own ensemble, the horns, particularly the reeds, are alternately vibrant and soulful, thanks in part to veteran saxophonist and clarinetist John Gilmore and altoists Pat Patrick and Marshall Allen. None of this music would be so finger-poppingly appealing, though, if it weren't for Ra's frictionless rhythm section, featuring drummers Thomas Hunter and Earl "Buster" Smith and guitarist Carl LeBlanc.
SUN RA ARKESTRA -- "Reflections in Blue" (Black Saint BSR 0101). Appearing Sunday at Kilimanjaro.