Words by Sam Bass
Last year, Harvard astrophysicist Megan Watzke, reporting for NASA on a spectacular and rare type of supernova sighting, poetically titled her article ‘Exploded Star Blooms Like a Cosmic Flower’. The florid trope created a small ripple in her academic community for dispensing with soberer logical tradition, even if the accompanying photo – the primary exhibit of the phenomenon – is universally appreciated as a (metaphorical and transfigurative) shining blueprint of modern telescopic capabilities.
It serves as a relevant parable for Sun Ra and the constantly refreshing energy – he considered sleep to be ‘mini-death’, therefore each awakening a rebirth – created by the late, great jazz composer, multi-keyboardist and Afro-Futurist visionary’s Arkestra. For their 60th anniversary tour, they’re once again under the direction of the ever-enigmatic nonagenarian alto-saxophonist ‘Maestro’ Marshall Allen, as they have been since Ra’s death in 1993. For many years, despite being considered a precocious talent by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, his utter unconventionalism, including radical pioneering methods such as electronic keyboard modalism, were heckled.
But for Ra, the Arkestra (a reference to the Ark of the Covenant and characteristically playfully “how Black people say ‘Orchestra’”) was not just a band, but a Gesamtkunstwerk that would be at least a single utopian enclave on Earth of his ‘Angel race’ from Saturn. It’s testament that it remains as fresh and ethereal as ever for well over half a century. While the Arkestra continue with their colourful sequined ancient Egyptian/space age hybrid clothing and ‘space dance’ conga winding through the audience, their intensely exhilarating trance-like performances, any given member leaping into a fervour of an impromptu free form solo or vocal contributions at any given moment, captivates like a sonic galactic leap compared even to the relatively abstract world of jazz. Amongst them, the powerful possessed glares of third alto-saxophonist, percussionist, vocalist and interpretive dancer Knoel Scott and the pyrotechnic chord-less sounds of Marshall Allen’s famous, Steiner Crumar-made EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument), who, a month away from his 92nd birthday, much more than stood for the entirety of the near two-hour session, charges, bellows, gleefully conducts – just two of many incredible individual performers that elevate as part of the focussed hive mind.
The ever-evolving big band – ten of 25 listed active members make it to Band on the Wall (a further 14 formerly involved are sadly passed away and dozens more occasional collaborators have come and gone) – continue to brightly bound across vast soundscapes that often have no bounds – free jazz, bebop, swing, but also clear early influences on funk and Afro-Latin fusion, they are by design chaotically organised. The surrealist doctrines spread with standouts including ‘Angel Race’, ‘Springtime Again’, ‘Saturn’, ‘Say’ and ‘Rocket Number Nine Take Off For The Planet Venus’ blossoming as fluid yet technically masterful renditions.
Sun Ra Arkestra, much like their extensive musical footprint, defy place and time. We should be thankful they chose to visit ours.
The Sun Ra Arkestra played at Band on the Wall on Friday 15 April, 2016.