Sun Ra Turns 100: Sun Ra Arkestra with Marshall Allen
Review by Monique Avakian
“Every light is a vibrational sight and sound…”
–Sun Ra, The Other Side of Music, 1972
The overall feel of this show collected into a vibe that still activates for the positive, days later. On October 5, 2013, the Sun Ra Arkestra played an extended two sets totaling over four hours at Lincoln Center. Those of you who play jazz know the kind of physical stamina it takes to do so. Those of you who have never seen guys well over 60 and some well over 70 play like this (and dance throughout the room up and down the stairs), well, perhaps you might become more inclined to respect your elders. Many younger folks could not even begin to handle such a feat on a physical level. Of course, the younger players in the band are also to be commended — not only for keeping up, but each leading in his/her own unique way. The level of musicianship was astounding!
On a spiritual level, the group has managed to keep the essence of Sun Ra alive and well, largely under the firm, yet warm direction of original member, Marshall Allen. Dressed like the wizard he is, Allen led with superior conduction skills, wielded largely through osmosis with the band and supported with well-timed hand signals when necessary. Since the group nears the 25 mark in number of personnel, this was really impressive to witness. Other magic conjured by Allen translated to us through the use of visual symbolism (i.e., moving his fingers rapidly near the sax keys while not touching them, but still blowing in a kinesthetic sound~poem~kind~of~way). Allen also had an electronic wind instrument that he used judiciously. Near the end, I did wish for an analog theramin. However, since the band was playing the audience like a theramin, I guess the digital element didn’t really matter.
Another digital element that also augmented the experience consisted of artist Michael Arthur drawing live on a computer screen, with his images projected above the band. His style complemented the space~vibe, especially his choice of neon green, pink and black colors. The digital medium lent itself to a fluidity that kept pace with the band pretty well. The artist’s choice of themes mainly fell into portraiture of players, but at one point, he had hands playing strings inside a circle. A magnificently potent image!
The music was just spectacular. During the second set, the tunes were arranged to alternate between free improv creations (again, with nearly 25 players!) and standards morphed a la’ Ra. Oh, and by the way, the instrumentation included acoustic full sized harp, French horn, flute, samba drum, violin, spoken word and cello along with all the usual instrumentation you’d expect. Near the end, the ultimate in funk came through (this is a percussion section of five players after all). The last four tunes in particular waved throughout the room and right through the roof of The Allen Room, showering the city with blessings and delight on a cellular, as well as stellar, level.
At first I thought the location might make Sun Ra unhappy for socio-cultural reasons, but by the end, I think the significant irony actually lent another level of space he would have appreciated, especially since it forces us to confront the very uncomfortable social realities we all keep trying to ignore.
The Sun Ra Arkestra is an uplifting, wild experience that honors the legacy of a creative radical who remains radical to this day.
The Man Himself:
Sun Ra Montreux 1976 (II): Take The A Train
Sun Ra solo mind-blowing intro, followed by band:
Sun Ra – Interview + Live Toronto 1991
NEXT SHOW in nyc:
December 13 at NUBLU
As part of the NUBLU Jazz Festival December 4-22, 2013
62 Avenue C between 4th and 5th Streets, NYC
Sun-Ra Related Art:
Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun-Ra
El Saturn and Chicago’s Afro-Futurist Underground 1954-68
Curated by John Corbett, Anthony Elms and Terri Kapsalis
Whitewalls books/Hyde Park Art Center
Sun Ra’s Poetry:
Sun Ra: Collected Works Vol. I: Immeasurable Equation
edited by Adam Abraham
Sun Ra Biography:
Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra
by John F. Szwed
Da Capo Press
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: