Magic Science Quartet at Cafe Oto and Barbican freestage

Henry Grimes at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2015. All Rights Reserved

Magic Science Quartet
(Cafe Oto, 22 September 2015 and Barbican with Guidhall students, 27 September 2015. Reviews and drawings by Geoff Winston)

The Magic Science Quartet are bound together by a unique chemistry. The majestic jazz and improvising bassist, Henry Grimes, since his reemergence on the scene in 2002, has teamed up on over thirty occasions with the mercurial Sun Ra Arkestra director, saxophonist, Marshall Allen. Grimes is approaching his eightieth birthday, Allen recently celebrated his ninety-first, yet both are flourishing in the company of the dynamic Chicagoan, ex-Sun Ra drummer, Avreeayl Ra, and artistic force, activist and pianist KA, whose achievements include the creation of the Uncool Festival at her Swiss mountain base.

Marshall Allen playing kora
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2015. All Rights Reserved  

The Magic Science Quartet do jazz and improvisation – but not quite like anybody else. Magic Science? Clues are in ‘Space is the Place’, Sun Ra’s biography by John Szwed; ‘[Sun Ra] told tales of a future when science would become one with music …’, and Sun Ra’s assertion that ‘You’re not musicians, you’re tone scientists.’ … and Grimes’ powerful, recent solo album on KA’s Uncool label is entitled ‘Tone of Wonder’ (REVIEWED HERE) .

There’s something special in the quartet’s language which goes very deep – and much that they don’t need to say. The resonances in their playing are more like reverberations from an earthquake, emerging as spontaneous statements with unique inflections and deflections that draw on their rich and unpredictable lives in jazz and art. Grimes, Ayler’s favourite bass player, with his thirty year hiatus, never losing hope; Allen’s total immersion in Sun Ra’s world to eventually take on the mantle of the Arkestra’s director; Av Ra embracing the healing potential of music, learned from Phil Cohran (father of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble) and KA, a visionary artist who took naturally to the piano, acquired twenty years ago.

Onstage, their multi-hued, sequinned attire was straight out of the Arkestra wardrobe. Avreeayl Ra has talked of how Sun Ra would write ‘music in different colours [with] notes pertaining to the vibration per second of the color [to] open up our consciousness …’ A focus on the spiritual dimension dusted their performance.

At Cafe Oto, two sets, burning the midnight oil, a testament to their stamina, and love of the music. Allen inaugurated proceedings with the lightest of touches on a kora (on which he’d been practicing for hours on end), then swapped between the bleepy atmospherics of the Casio palm-keyboard, the EVI, and explosive bursts on alto sax. Grimes took the bass for a walk, exerting a subterranean, gravitation pull, KA turned the piano into a supercharged harp, with echoes of Tyner and Cecil Taylor, and Av Ra exuded joy, energy and rhythmic precision, which extended to the foursome’s spells of dry desert scratching, with shakers, reed pipe and micro-sonics.

Magic Science Quartet with Guildhall students – 23 piece big band on Barbican freestage
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2015. All Rights Reserved 

On the Barbican Freestage, after two days of workshops with the quartet, Guildhall students and youngsters from east London joined them to make up a joyous, twenty-three piece Magic Science Arkestra, exuding life and energy, with Allen in full conduction mode and Grimes at its fulcrum. KA and Ra drove from the back with 4 guitars, 6 saxes, 3 keyboards, 2 percussionists, bass, Alpine horn, flute and trumpet in tow, sounding somewhere between JCOA, a Mingus Orchestra – briefly playing two tunes simultaneously, and the riffy, chugging confidence of a Basie bunch, motoring with some of the fiercest grooves around, some great solos – sax and flute, notably, and memorably, Grimes’ immaculate solo spot where he didn’t skip a beat, but just skipped along. Pure jazz. And Allen was totally in control, with graceful gestures and an unfailingly positive, life-affirming musical vision that imbued every note played. Brilliant!

Henry Grimes and Marshall Allen
Photo credit: Paul Wood

The Magic Science Quartet will be playing late gigs at the Vortex on Tuesday 29 and Wed 30 September, kicking off at 11pm – be there!

The Magic Science Quartet

Henry Grimes: acoustic double bass, violin
Marshall Allen: alto saxophone, flute, evi, casio vl-tone
Avreeayl Ra: drums, bamboo flute, kalimba
KA: piano, shaman drum

Categories: miscellaneous

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