Sun Ra Arkestra – Jazz Café, London (21st October 2019)

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 men onstage.

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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