Review: Sun Ra Arkestra at the Barbican

Sun Ra Arkestra at the Barbican. Photo credit: Roger Thomas

Sun Ra Arkestra directed by Marshall Allen
(Barbican Hall, September 29th, 2012. Part of Transcender Festival. Review by Andrew Cartmel)

As soon as I entered the concert hall I found that the heat from the light show projectors provided a swampy, tropical warmth. With amoeboid coloured shapes crawling up the walls, courtesy of ‘psychedelic lighting pioneers’ Mystic Lights, the Sun Ra Arkestra were providing an alien environment even before they took the stage.

“I wished I’d smoked a joint beforehand,” says the guy in seat number 20, waiting until the usher is out of earshot. The band come on stage, all in the colourful, glittering faux-futuristic garb which is their trademark. Pianist Farid Barron is wearing antennae with coloured lights flashing on them. And they launch into the first of many Sun Ra orginals —‘Interplanetary Music’. Marshall Allen plays a squawking, rollicking alto sax over trumpet and trombone call and response. It’s like a New Orleans funeral joyously returning — from outer space. Knoel Scott delivers lovely articulate alto sax, intent and rhythmic.

Then it’s ‘Space is the Place’ with James Stuart wailing on tenor sax under Marshall Allen’s raw, appealing vocals. A kind of George Clinton doo-wop yields to ensemble wailing, building to a car crash climax which brings a whoop of delight from the audience.

Next the Arkestra starts to play ‘Saturn’ as constellations of colour explode on the screen behind them. This is a trumpet feature for the admirable Cecil Brooks — the flight of the bumblebee through the interstellar void. Knoel Scott on alto sax is coaxing and moaning over jaunty piano chords from Farid Barron. Fats Waller would have been happy here, chugging and swinging along. Those who came expecting avant-garde abstractions will be disappointed until Marshall Allen lays his dominating screech over the ensemble. He is here to deliver the modernism.

Next up is one of two standards played tonight among the Sun Ra originals, ‘Tenderly’, in which Stephen Mitchell’s virtuoso upright bass is fat and sumptuous and the band swaggers with it under the piercing ululations of Marshall Allen’s sax. Farid Barron plays a glittering, cascading piano solo. Danny Ray Thompson switches from baritone sax to flute and provides a finely wrought melody while Marshall Allen balances the equation with the patented avant-garde Arkestra caterwauling — a pattern has begun to emerge here. Marshall Allen delivers scribbled decorations on the carefully considered patterns of sound provided by the other band members.

The next number from Sun Ra’s vast catalogue begins with thundering synthesiser and darting electronics. Knoel Scott is on drums now and Marshall Allen has swapped to an Electronic Valve Instrument) which twitters as coloured shapes dance on the screen behind the stage. It’s a visual feast as well as an aural one.

“No need for that joint after all,” murmurs the person in seat 20.

Danny Ray Thompson resumes on flute and the head-clearing purity and pleasure of his sound makes me think of menthol and eucalyptus. Meanwhile Knoel Scott is somersaulting across the stage as he performs his ‘space dance’ to the delight of the audience, purple cape flying. Pulsating, tight ensemble work proceeds while Marshall Allen intones vocals like a high priest officiating and Cecil Brooks offers piercing interjections on the trumpet. Fred Adams, also on trumpet, provided sterling support throughout.

Wrapping up the first set, ‘Angels and Demons’ is replete with chants and synth stabs and tweets, culminating in a climax of blazing abstraction. Set two begins with Cecil Brooks excelling again on muted trumpet and the excellent Dave Davis on muted trombone and Dave Hotep playing wild post-Hendrix guitar in an abstract, electronic landscape.

Next, hypnotic pulsing patterns of the light show provide the backdrop for a psychedelic tour de force which suggests that the 1960s are back, for one night only.

The four man sax section begin to march around on stage, then into the audience, to the jubilation of the crowd. Back on stage, this is a feature for the formidable Craig Haynes on drums, expertly handling the complex rhythms with the adroit and accomplished support of Elson Nascimento on percussion. Now ‘Rocket Number Nine’ is ready for take off. Again Danny Ray Thompson demonstrates his virtuosity with the flute until the rocket’s flight ends in a flourish of electronic abstraction. Next we have the other standard of the evening — Charlie Chaplin’s tune ‘Smile’ with lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons. Back on baritone sax Danny Ray Thompson is carrying the melody stylishly while Marshall Allen honks and squeaks, providing wild, raucous embellishments. James Stuart on tenor sax steps to the fore here with a memorable and affectingly beautiful solo. Then Cecil Brooks delivers a lovely solo on muted trumpet, vastly expressive, virtually speaking the lyrics. When Knoel Scott takes his turn, playing liquid and lyrical one begins to realise just what an all-star line up the Arkestra is. This is followed by the high point of the show. ‘I’m Gonna Unmask the Batman’. This song by Lacy Gibson and Alton Abraham, the latter being Sun Ra’s business manager. It was originally recorded in a bluesy James Brown style by Lacy Gibson in 1968 and was subsequently covered by Sun Ra in 1974.

Tonight it begins with some Jelly Roll honky-tonk piano courtesy of Farid Barron as the Arkestra moves into an R&B lope with Marshall Allen’s alto providing exuberantly strident commentary. The brilliant Knoel Scott is now playing pure rhythm and blues. It’s a dancehall scorcher. He passes the baton to James Stuart who plays long lines, then staccato stabs that yield to a smooth and masterful solo.

Then James  Stuart really goes for it. He delivers wild, clawing, raise-the-dead licks in one of the highlights of the evening before handing over in turn to Cecil Brooks. The trumpeter has set aside his mute now and plays with immaculate reined-in control. Dave Hotep takes over on gut-bucket electric guitar. Every solo is a masterpiece in miniature.

Next a greeting to the 21st Century, written by Sun Ra in the 20th. James Stuart’s opening tenor solo is wildly beautiful with an exotic, focused melancholy. Marshall Allen’s alto is skittering and screeching over the tenor man’s searching, questing lyricism. Danny Ray Thompson’s baritone provides a low, thunderous music to underline Marshall Allen.

The concluding number is a return to Sun Ra’s emblematic anthem ‘Space is the Place’. As these wonderful musicians in their hokey sci-fi garb commence to march off the stage it’s like watching a tinfoil spaceship actually take off, and go accelerating into the interstellar void. The sax, trombone and trumpet players all weave through the audience, close enough to touch. They pause to shake a little boy’s hand, then keep marching. Everyone is clapping in time to the music. Everyone has risen to their feet. The dividing line between audience and band has melted away.

Sun Ra, who left this planet in 1993, has managed to pull off a mystical experience. In the Barbican. By remote control. I wish the Arkestra were playing another gig tonight. I want to see them again.

Categories: miscellaneous

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