LIVE REPORT: Sun Ra Arkestra

Stewart Smith reports from the group's latest residency at Cafe Oto in London

Photo by Fabio Lugaro

Sun Ra may have returned to his home planet 22 years ago, but under the direction of Marshall Allen, the Arkestra keep his joyful noise alive. The group’s latest three-day residency at Café Oto is a relatively low-key affair after last year’s expansive Sun Ra centenary extravaganza. When I say low-key, I mean as much as a cosmic jazz big-band can be. Tonight, Allen leads a nine-piece Arkestra, featuring old hands like saxophonist/singer Knoel Scott and flautist/baritone saxist Danny Ray Thompson, and the relatively youthful rhythm section of bassist Tyler Mitchell and percussionists Wayne Anthony Smith Jr and Elson Nascimento. With Farid Abdul-Bari Barton absent, the piano stool is occupied by special guest Bobby Few, 79 year-old veteran of many an Albert Ayler, Steve Lacy and Noah Howard session.

Having only seen the Arkestra at festivals before, I’m keen to hear them in different context of a club residency, where there is less emphasis on playing the hits and more opportunity to stretch out. This isn’t to say they don’t play their fair share of Sun Ra classics, but they’re given new life thanks to Allen’s constantly evolving arrangements and in-the-moment conduction. At 91 years-old, Allen really is a wonder of the universe, unleashing squalls of alto sax with his signature crab-claw right hand jabs and directing the band with karate chop arm movements and barked instructions. ‘Put some spirit into it’, he yells at one point, singing phrases and counting out beats for the players to follow. On his Electronic Wind Instrument he conjures bubbling streams of space plasma and galactic cruiser engine revs.

For all the space-age exotica, tonight’s set underlines the Arkestra’s umbilical connection to the big-band music of Sun Ra’s mentor Fletcher Henderson. This music glides and and swings along the spaceways, the cheerful space chants and hearty gulps of baritone sax offset by Few’s gorgeous purple moon piano impressions. Resplendent in sparkling robes, the Arkestra are real old-school entertainers, dancing on stage and leading a procession through the crowd.  Both sets are beautifully paced, ranging from the dreamy overture of ‘Interplanetary Music’ to the fidgety 2/4 march of ‘Rocket Number 9’ through to ballads like ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’. This Disney standard should be maudlin, but in the hands of the Arkestra it’s genuinely lovely, with Allen’s expressive alto tapping into the song’s emotional core. After a generous interlude the late-night second set tears the roof off Oto with a deeply funky ‘Nuclear War’ and a joyous ‘We Travel The Spaceways’. There are some terrific improvisations, not least the playful duet between Allen and Mitchell, with the former coaxing space-invader blips from a pocket-sized Casio VL-1 synth while the bassist prods and slides. The Arkestra keep the satellites spinning until well after midnight, leaving the door to the cosmos standing wide open.  

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