Considering Sun Ra died in 1993, his Arkestra are doing pretty well for themselves. They’ve
been touring pretty consistently since then, with long-time sideman Marshall
Allen at the helm the entire time.
At the time of writing this,
Allen is 95. There are very few things I can imagine my grandparents doing in 15
years, and playing saxophone on tour in a still quite incredible jazz collective
is potentially last on the list. However, he still does it with ease. Having
been performing alongside Ra since the 1950s, it’s safe to say he knows these
tracks better than most.
Due to his age, he isn’t the
star of the show. He doesn’t take on any wild solos and his time spend speaking
to the audience is limited, but considering he is on stage and older than most
of us can hope to ever be, none of this really matters. He still provides some
pretty accurate backing vocals, some perfectly balanced sax solos, and when he’s
feeling extra sprightly, a couple of bouncy dance moves.
Unexpectedly, most of the
band are seated tonight. They rise when a solo or particularly intricate melody
line is expected of them, with their elaborate dress being extenuated with
every movement. Sun Ra’s personal philosophy is pushed forward through these
costumes and the lyrics of his evergreen tracks, but preaching speeches about being
an alien from Saturn are (thankfully) kept to a minimum.
Across the two sets performed
tonight, standout moments included the magnificent proto-hip-hop of ‘Nuclear
War’, some Marshall Allen originals and ‘Space Is The Place’. The band are
tight in their renditions of every track, though as you might expect, they don’t
quite live up to the studio realisations of yesteryear, with occasional sloppy
rhythms and overblown saxophones showing signs of the collective age of the 11
Allen himself provides some good
solos, as well as the occasional jarring (yet well placed) free jazz influenced
note in the middle of an otherwise irrelevant passage. Saxophonist/percussionist/vocalist
Knoel Scott might be the star of the show as the most sprightly member on stage,
but saxophonist/percussionist Danny Ray gives him a run for his money with a
few shouts of ‘yeah’ and ‘alright’ during particularly inspiring solos. Some loud,
central cowbells make me think some particularly annoying members are trying to
join in with the music on stage, before I realise the slightly more youthful
percussionist are making a journey through the crowd to give a more stereo
field friendly experience.
Overall, this is a great
jazz show. In terms of emotion and authenticity, everything is there. These performers
know what they’re doing, and a lot of them were right there in the middle when
this music was at the top of its game. This makes it pretty inspiring to see. Of
course, their technicality has been surpassed in recent years, but to see a 95
year old head up a jazz band with such sincerity and grace remains an
impressive and almost inimitable feat.
The Sun Ra Arkestra Will Be
At The Jazz Café Again On October 22nd.
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