On 29th September, the Barbican will feature the “cosmic” Sun Ra Arkestra founded by the cult figure and multi-instrumentalist Sun Ra (1914-93) in the mid 50s. It is now under the direction of Arkestra veteran (he has been with them since 1958 and is now in his late 80s) saxophonist Marshall Allen
It is rare for the Arkestra to be asked to play in a space as large as the Barbican Hall and, to mark the occasion, they are expanding the Arkestra (exact size still TBC) to the size that they would sometimes up it to in the 60’s and 70’s, utilising instruments like thunder drums.
The Barbican have also invited the group Mystic Lights to come and do the lighting, a group that did the lights and stage design in venues like the Roundhouse and the famous UFO Club in the 60’s. “They are no strangers to psychedelic shows,” according to Chris Sharp (Music Programmer at the Barbican). “We just wanted to make it a visual spectacular to match the musicianship which will of course be spectacular as it always is.”
The actual music itself has often been eclipsed by the gargantuan and eccentric personality that was Sun Ra, but many first time listeners can be quite surprised by just how varied and difficult to define it often is. Sun Ra started off writing in a similar manner to Duke Ellington and was grounded in the early swing and blues styles; Chris Sharp says, ‘I know a lot of jazz fans aren’t don’t feel particularly comfortable with that mystic stuff but for me…it was a good way in to experimental improvisatory jazz, it has a narrative and a mood that is quite approachable even though some of the actual musicianship is quite demanding.”
Sun Ra ‘left the planet’ in 1993 but his legacy as a teacher and a bandleader pervades through the group to this day. The Arkestra still perform all of the old music and the group were so thoroughly well trained and taught be Ra that, musically, the only element that has really changed is the soloing as new members continue to join and be replaced after his death.
In fact, Sun Ra wrote so much music throughout his lifetime that Allen has to do very little (if any) composition for the group, according to Sharp who met Allen the last time he was over, ‘Marshal Allen, rather endearingly, wanders around with them [arrangements and compositions] in a plastic bag overflowing with sheet music… He literally had a Tesco bag with a lever-arch file in it that had seen better days and music was spilling out of it. I said, “Crickey! Don’t you want to be a bit more careful than that?” he said “Sonny wrote so much music, you lose this there is always more.”’