From Halloween to Babylon-The Sun Ra Arkestra
The band came on stage dressed in more glitter than a collision of Beyoncé and Liberace, wearing psychedelic new age ponchos, spangled capes and faux Egyptian and African headgear. It was the perfect costume for Halloween. The only thing is, this is the way the Sun Ra Arkestra dresses for every gig.
It seems like an annual ritual in Philadelphia; the descent of the Sun Ra Arkestra on Halloween. This year, it took place in the cramped, balcony wrapped confines of Philadelphia’s Johnny Brenda’s in a show produced by the Ars Nova Workshop. The thirteen members of the Arkestra crammed onto the tiny stage with musicians shoulder to shoulder, knee to back. The dancer didn’t even get on until the end when most of the band vacated. She dodged stands and foot pedals while doing the Eygptian twerk.
It seems little has changed with the Arkestra, first formed in the early 1950s. Named for its founder, composer and keyboardist Sun Ra, the Arkestra charted a course through big band, free jazz, futuristic space and electronic music, creating an alternate universe of Afro-Futurism. Sun Ra left the planet in 1993, but the band has soldiered on with long time member, 91 year old alto saxophonist Marshall Allen leading these space age jazz gypsies. He was one of the original core members, signing up in 1957, and he has done the impossible, maintained the spirit of Sun Ra while continuing to expand the sound with new compositions. Most of the band members were with the Arkestra while Sun Ra was alive, with various members from the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.
“If we came from nowhere here, why can’t we go somewhere there?”
That was the opening refrain sung by Tara Middleton on the Arkestra’s sold out Halloween show and it launched the band into a free-form fury that pretty much didn’t stop for 2 hours. The show ebbed and flowed through classic, Sun Ra-style, conga driven vamps with musicians stepping up to solo. Each member of the band got solo spots, with longtime trumpeter Michael Ray launching an echo delayed solo while the other two trumpeters blew lancing stabs. As if the stage wasn’t full enough, occasionally a 14th member on alto saxophone wearing an Asian rice-picker’s hat would climb on the edge of the stage to blow a solo.
Long stretches of big band jamming, directed by Allen, were interspersed with iconic Sun Ra tunes that fall somewhere between righteous hipster space songs and nursery rhymes. Middleton sang the leads with Allen and other band members joining in for ragged call and response and harmonies, it was like Lambert, Hendricks and Ross on drugs. Although actually, LH&R were on drugs but the Arkestra never is.
Marshall Allen, despite his age, seemed to get stronger as the show progressed. His signature pneumatic sax solos seemed a little thin in the beginning but gained a stronger voice as the show progressed. On their current show closer, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” he sprayed an otherwise serene and soulful reading by Tara Mitchell with squealing solos that nevertheless were still completely appropriate.
Marshall also held down the electronic side of the band. In unusual fashion, there were no keyboards at this concert, which, Sun Ra having been the leader, were a hallmark sound of the group. Even the lone Casio VL-Tone went untouched. But Allen brought the space bloops and bleeps playing his now ancient Steiner EVI, an electronic valve instrument with a pitch-shifting wheel that Allen used to extensive effect. As the show progressed his solos on the instrument became more incisive with long glissando lines arcing into space. Marshall held down a lot of the role that would’ve been played by Sun Ra’s Moog synthesizer, as did guitarist David Hotep. Tucked in the back, he generated some space sounds on his guitar while also holding the rhythm center.
This was a looser, more ragged performance by the Arkestra. The horns often seemed a step out of synchronization and the rhythms were on the shambolic side. But it was also one of the more fun Arkestra performances I’ve witnessed. There is a lot of joy in the Sun Ra Arkestra who played to an audience decked in Halloween costumes from Ra inspired Egyptian regalia to straight-harried poodle dog heads to faeries to a guy wearing a silver welder’s helmet with horns. I was next to a mime all night. She didn’t say a word. The band got into it with baritone saxophonist Danny Thompson playing Dracula.
A tighter iteration of the band can be heard on the new album, Babylon Live, a new CD/DVD that features the Arkestra in full effect in Turkey. They shouldn’t sound this good. Sun Ra has been dead for 22 years, the only members of the classic configurations of the group are baritone saxophonist Danny Thompson, French horn player Vincent Chancey and the new leader Marshall Allen. Yet, this iteration of Sun Ra’s Arkestra is as ebullient and may be even more taut than many previous incarnations.
The live performance from Istanbul screams joy even when intoning Ra’s ominous “Astro Black.” But as soon as they hit “Ra #2” it’s all bliss. A composition reputedly drawn from original Sun Ra rehearsals but never played in public, Allen’s arrangement sends the ensemble charging through this ten minute composition, stacking one screaming solo on top of another. The tenor solo recalls David Murray in his heyday as he twists notes into exploding pretzels.
The classic Ra swing song, “Saturn” starts out a little ragged till it hits the main theme, then the horns slam into unison on the melody. This is one of those Ra tunes that you think could’ve come from an the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra with a touch of Bop. Over a steady, swinging groove from Wayne Anthony Smith Jr., various members solo freely, punctuated by the horn section. Pianist Farid Barron gives a lesson in jazz piano from ragtime to swing to Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra. As the band closes in with the theme, Marshall Allen swirls over the top with those pneumatic lines that are his signature.
Every track on Babylon leaves you breathless. “Discipline 27B” is one of those faux Egyptian grooves that Ra loved. Its modal vamp leaves room for a string of freewheeling solos but listen to what’s happening underneath. There’s almost another, simultaneous but interlocked performance going on as instruments drop out of one theme and segue into another. Farid in particular shifts from frontline soloist slashing at a harpsichord sounding electric keyboard and then fading into the undersong. It’s also a good groove for Dave Hotep to get his psychedelic guitar solo going.
Any Sun Ra Arkestra performance is a mix of the wacky and the wonderful. After a great run through “Dancing Shadows” with ripping solos from James Stuart on tenor and Knoel Scott on alto, they close the CD with “Satellites Are Spinning” with singer Tara Middleton intoning lyrics like “The satellites are spinning, a better day is waking” with all the soulfulness she can muster before the goofy harmonies of the male members join in. It morphs into the Sun Ra theme song, “We Travel the Spaceways” and then the ensemble blasts off in a whirl of free soloing and Marshall Allen spinning out lines on his EVI. That seems like the end, but Marshall Allen drops off a few poetic bon mots before exiting for the next spaceship out of Istanbul.
More on Sun Ra:
10 Sun Ra Albums to Blow Your Mind
Trippin’ Out to the Sun Ra Arkestra