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LIVE REPORT: The Sun Ra Arkestra
Andy Thomas , October 4th, 2012 08:08

Veteran saxophonist Marshall Allen leads Sun Ra's Arkestra

In the half-between world,
Dwell they: The Tone Scientists
In notes and tone
They speak of many things...
The tone scientists:
Architects of planes of discipline
Mathematically precise are they:
The tone-scientists
(Sun Ra)

When he departed this planet in 1993, the man who always claimed to be born not in Alabama but on Saturn, left behind one of the most disciplined yet free thinking collectives of 20th century music.

Back in 1968, Sun Ra had relocated his Arkestra from New York to Philadelphia after increasing police attention in the East Village. Moving into a house in Germantown owned by the father of saxophonist Marshall Allen they immediately set about adapting their new home. The outside walls were painted with swirling psychedelic murals and the windows covered with aluminum foil, either to reflect light or to keep the narcotics police out. Inside the house the Arkestra formed into a cult-like commune, where the disciplinarian leadership of Ra instilled both a fierce creative freedom and a loyal collective bond. Rehearsing around the clock in the front room of the house under a cloak of incense, the Arkestra created a unique space in jazz where freeform experimentation was matched by what Ra insisted was the “the music of precision”. Distancing himself from the avant-garde he was often associated with, Sun Ra explained: “Actually I don’t play free music, because there is no freedom in the universe. If you were to be free you could just play no matter what and it doesn’t come back to you. But you see, it always does come back to you. That’s why I always warn my musicians, be careful about what you play… every note, every beat, be aware that it comes back to you.” It was this belief in the responsibility of the artist both to self-development and to the communal good that was passed on to the Arkestra following Sun Ra’s death nearly twenty years ago now. For the two years following his death, saxophonist John Gilmore took on the mantle but following his passing in 1995 the formidable responsibility of continuing the strict yet liberating leadership of Ra was passed on to another Arkestra veteran who had joined the band back in 1958.

Marshall Allen, who appeared on an incredible 200 Sun Ra releases, was to take the Arkestra on a new journey of astral travel as his online biography explains. “Mr. Allen continues to reside at the Sun Ra Residence in Philadelphia, composing, writing and arranging for the Arkestra much like his mentor, totally committed to a life of discipline centered totally on the study, research, and further development of Sun Ra's musical precepts.” But the latest chapter in the Arkestra’s story has not been one of imitation, with Marshall penning hundreds of new arrangements of Ra’s work while also composing new music for the band. Taking the Arkestra into “a dimension beyond that of mere ghost band” Allen has toured his big band extensively with their last appearance at Café Oto in Dalston going down in London jazz folklore.

This was an intimate gig emitting such force that some in the crowd had called it “scary”. So as we arrived for the Arkestra’s much awaited return to London we were curious to see if the band could bring some of that energy into the larger setting of the Barbican Hall. Initial signs were good as we took our seats with the whole auditorium bathed in the warm psychedelic hues of the Mystic Lights collective who were to accompany the band with a specially commissioned light show. Sun Ra’s music has recently been reinterpreted by some of the leaders of the electronic underground who have for a long time held him up as a pioneer (when asked recently for his direct music influences Chicago’s Jamal Moss, aka Hieroglyphic Being, replied simply “Sun Ra”). It was therefore apt that the responsibility of introducing the Arkestra tonight fell to one of the more abstract and jazz-leaning producers of the new school. Reading Sun Ra’s poem ‘Astro Black’, Moss invited the 11-piece ensemble onto the stage.

On the Barbican podcast to accompany this concert, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore explained how he had once seen Ra giving a lecture entering the stage narrating in mid-speech. And I am reminded of this as the Arkestra emerges tonight. Clad in their trademark kaleidoscopic space outfits with the piano of Farid Barron (wearing antennae with brightly flashing lights) and astro-chants of band members creating a loose collision of sound, it’s as if they were already in flow before they took to the stage.

Now incredibly 88 years-old, Marshall Allen can still blow with the same force as when he was a 30 year-old leader of Sun Ra’s reed section in the 1960s. The music Ra was creating back then made him something of an outsider with the bebop elite. The truth however was that Ra had helped nurture some of the tightest bop soloists around, something that is evident tonight as the band takes flight on the opener ‘Interplanetary Music’ (the original appearing way ahead of its time on the 1956 LP We Travel the Space Ways). Stood to the left of the stage with a weighty stack of charts under his chair, Allen is a commanding presence orchestrating and inviting soloists from his ensemble.

The power and precision of the horn section (including veteran saxophonist and flautist Danny Thompson alongside newest member tenorist James Stuart flanked by trumpeters Cecil Brooks and Fred Adams) is offset by the loose handclaps of the band. This creates a heavy but free sound that builds as the volume levels are increased. Despite his ability to reach the outer realms both in thought and sound, Ra’s music was always as physical as it was cerebral, and the band swing wonderfully tonight, if slightly off-kilter on ‘Saturn’ that was first recorded back in 1958.

The sounds emerging from the stage are matched by the sensory overload of Mystic Light. Mixing up Joshua Light Show-style effects with angular op art they provide a fittingly out-there backdrop to the Arkestra’s own astral projections. By the time Marshall Allen has unveiled his E.V.I. (Electronic Valve Instrument) working his electronic glitches against the warped synth licks of Farid Barron as the purple-caped Knoel Scott (on alto sax, congas and vocals tonight) bounds across stage doing his ‘space dance’ to the modal groove of ‘Angel & Demons at Play’ the senses certainly needed some respite.

Out in the foyer, the assault does not let up though as Jamal Moss drops a serious set of future electronic music, mixing up the heavier end of Detroit techno with free jazz and even a dollop of Donna Summer. It was a short set but one that made us want to dig deeper into his productions. But today belonged to the Ark and we were soon back in the auditorium for part two. Now dressed in a red cape like some cosmic wizard, Marshall Allen intoned one of Sun Ra’s great questions: "If you are not a myth, whose reality are you? If you are not a reality, whose myth are you?” as one of his more obscure compositions ‘Space Idyll’ is matched by the Pollock-like abstractions projected onto the stage.

Summoning his saxophonists to join him at the front of the stage while a barrage of percussion from the brilliant trap drummer Craig Haynes and the mighty surdo player Elson Nascimento threatened to take the roof off with the aptly entitled ‘Rocket Number Nine’, the power of the ensemble was simply breathtaking. As the horn players step off the stage and wander through the crowd blowing fiercely as they go one has to be reminded of the communal responsibility Ra instilled in his band. Following this battering we are led gently into the soothing strains of ‘Smile’, a characteristically light hearted take on a standard first recorded by Sun Ra on Nuclear War and now turned into a stylish ballad by the latest incarnation of the Arkestra. Equally as playful but seriously funky ‘I’m Gonna Unmask the Batman’ sees the horn section alternate on solos that are as forceful as they are sublime with the electric guitar of Dave Hotep coming to the fore on this heavy slice of R&B.

The communal force that has taken over the hall builds to a crescendo on the soaring ‘Carefree Number 2’ which has become one of the Arkestra’s live standards. As the power recedes slightly with Marshall intoning Sun Ra’s lyric ‘I’ll Wait For You’, projections of his mentor appear on the back of the stage. We see Ra wandering through the pyramids of Egypt and then conducting his Arkestra, while on the stage in front of these ghostly images his students continue to transmit his message. It’s a poignant moment and one that’s not lost on this crowd who have been willing and ardent passengers on this journey to somewhere out there. And so to a medley including vocal refrains from Space is the Place and We Travel the Space Ways the dazzling metallic band weave their way off the stage hopping as they go. Following a joyous encore of Nat King Cole’s ‘Hit That Jive Jack’ the Arkestra leave us for the last time tonight to a rousing applause from the by now ecstatic crowd.