Sun Ra Arkestra
(EartH, promoted by Cafe Oto, 15 May 2022; review and drawings by Geoff Winston)
In its own understatedly riotous way, the Sun Ra Arkestra, led by the explosive, single-mindedness of Marshall Allen, triumphantly burned up Earth with consummate musicianship and its infectious communality of spirit.
Appropriately, the current twelve-piece, with its roots in its eponymous leader’s mythologies based around his origins on planet Saturn and travels on the Spaceways of the cosmos, had touched down on planet EartH in Dalston for this, their second of three sold-out nights promoted by Cafe Oto.
Sun Ra, as the saga unfolds, left Earth in 1993. His mantle was taken up by the acclaimed saxophonist, John Gilmore, who joined Ra in 1995, since when the Arkestra has survived and ultimately thrived under the leadership of the extraordinary, about-to-celebrate 98 years, Marshall Allen.
There is something quite magical about the Sun Ra Arkestra, harking back to Sun Ra’s all-consuming vision and his experience with swinging, ground-breaking big bands in the 1940s, notably with Fletcher Henderson, in an environment shaped, amongst others, by Ellington’s orchestra and its offshoots.
Sun Ra, fundamentally a great innovator, said, in the cult film ‘Space is the Place’, where he has been abducted to a strange planet, “The music is different here. The vibrations are different, not like planet Earth. Planet Earth … sound of guns, anger, frustration …”
He carefully chose musicians whom, he said, “… believed in Archestration, discipline and precision. Not many musicians have demonstrated that.” And the legacy strides on with its core of musicians, some of whom have been with the band for decades, maintaining an enviable freshness, versatility and vitality.
In two hour-long sets they covered a gamut of ground, offering deceptively relaxed, Latin-infused bossa and rhumba rhythms, classic, swinging, brass section work, left field deviations, poetic declamations and a stunningly powerful blues, “from Chicago” as we were reminded, where Sun Ra had decamped to in the 40s, prior to New York in the 60s and, finally, Philadelphia.
All activity was guided by the unbelievably energetic Allen, clad in a glittering, star-emblazoned cloak, with master saxophonist Knoel Scott, always there to help steer the ship.
Great solos abounded – vocalist Tara Middleton was at the top of her form, with clarity and poise infusing her delivery – and changing from the band’s signature glittering sequins in to Tutankhamun-decorated tights for the second set! Allen cut through with screeching alto sax interventions and passages on his EVI (electronic valve instrument). Scott flipped from deeply resonant baritone sax to alto and spells on bongos. Bass solos from Tyler Mitchell blossomed as the whole band stepped right back to give him space, and Dave Hotep’s searing blues guitar solo delighted with its disarmingly soft, hollow tones. The tenor sax of James Stewart and the trombone and trumpet of Dave Davis and Cecil Brooks, respectively, kept on giving with masterly improvised phrasing. The keyboardist (either Tevin Thomas or George Burton, I’m not sure) threw in rippling boogie-woogie figures alongside electronic atmospherics. All underpinned by flowing, in-the-groove drumming and percussion.
A great concert, and a great way to follow the Arkestra’s intimate gigs at Cafe Oto over the years, to which Hamish Dunbar, proud promoter of the Earth residency, alluded in his introductions.
LINK: Sun Ra Arkestra website
Categories: Live review