The Sun Ra Arkestra made a return to earth this past Wednesday night at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. The sound was high-school-gym awful, the seating on the floor uncomfortable, the lighting harsh. It didn’t matter. The 21-piece Sun Ra Arkestra, led by alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, raised the spirits in a two hour, non-stop performance that ranged from swing to corn to way the hell beyond.
The concert made me a born-again Arkestra devotee. Between 1972 and his departure from the planet in 1993, I saw the Arkestra every chance I could, some 30 times, including Christmas Eve in Boston. But I’d resisted the Marshal Allen led band. I thought it could only be a shell of the cosmic circus that Ra presented. I was wrong. Allen, always one of the formidable voices in the band, has kept Ra’s spirit alive with a performance that wasn’t a recreation. It was another step in the Arkestra’s evolution.
But all the great Sun Ra elements were present. There were spangled capes and hats, swing numbers and corny tunes, amateurish dancers and riveting horn sections, and of course, free form blowouts like you rarely see anymore.
Farrid Barron did a great job on piano and sending out shards of synthesizer chords, but it was actually Allen who handled all the electronic space age whoops, whorls and wiggles. He played his antiquated, but effective electronic valve instrument when this wizened wizard wasn’t spitting out oscillating alto solos. Now a spry 85, and with the Arkestra since 1958, he hasn’t lost anything.
Stalwarts with the Arkestra from the 60s, 70s and 80s included bassist Juini Booth, baritone man Danny Thompson, tenor sax player Charles Davis and trumpeter Michael Ray, who I still think of as the hot new young trumpeter, even though he’s been with the group since the late 1970s.
The Arkestra did their walk through the crowd, Noel Scott did somersaults, they essayed Fletcher Henderson’s “Big John Special,” a staple of Sun Ra’s later years and at the end, most of the horns left the stage and Marshall Allen and the percussionists let loose a joyful cacophony of free jazz blowing.
In the late 90s, I produced a documentary called Sun Ra’s Cosmic Swing for NPR‘s Jazz Profiles. You can still catch it online, here.
Allen has released several albums with the Arkestra and they are currently touring Europe, doing the festival circuit. You can catch their tour dates on the Arkestra’s website.
The Sun Ra Arkestra will perform a Halloween show, an Arkestra tradition, on Oct. 31st. Philadelphia, PA, International House Philadelphia, 3701 Chestnut street, PA 19104. I’ll be the one standing in rapture.
John Diliberto ((( echoes )))