Jazz Legends : Sun Ra Arkestra + Norman Connors, Jean Carne, Gary Bartz, Bobby Lyle & the Starship Orchestra
(Royal Festival Hall. 16 July 2022. Review by Alison Bentley)
On the hottest weekend of the year it felt right that the late Sun Ra, who took his name from the Egyptian god of the sun, should be living on in the character of his Arkestra. Loud spacey sounds and sparkling cloaks were the first things to strike you- a theatrical mixture of space age and ancient Egypt. The band was led by 98-year-old Marshall Allen in spangled cope- he’s been with the band since the 50s. There was an engaging mixture of big band discipline and wild free playing. (Sun Ra started out playing with Fletcher Henderson’s band.) Allen conducted full horn harmonies with precision, sliding up to notes like Johnny Hodges. Tara Middleton sang with powerful gospel influence- hints of Aretha and Mahalia. Though the sound was on the boomy side, and it was sometimes tricky to hear details from out front, it was good to see the way band members focused on each other’s solos- really listening to them.
In “Stranger in Paradise”, Knoel Scott’s tenor solo was Rollins-like (Scott later cartwheeled impressively across the front of the stage.) Allen’s free alto solo sprang like a wildcat on to the soothing Latin rhythms. Sun Ra encouraged everyone in the band to double on a percussion instrument, so there was a sense of constant activity. “Space is the Place” sang Middleton; Allen created a trippy feel with lots of reverb on his electric valve instrument. “Angels and Demons at Play”, in five with urgent flute, had a striking solo from sax-player Gary Bartz who sat in for most of the gig. A Mingus-like shuffle blues led into Watch the Sunshine; solos skated on the surface of the big sound before melting into free form. A superfast time-no-changes piece with lots of interaction became “Springtime Again”, an anarchic vision of spring, and then a minor shuffle as the band danced off stage to a heartfelt standing ovation. Serious fun.
The second-half of the evening brought together another group of musicians who’d worked together for decades in different forms of soul jazz. Drummer Norman Connors was the central figure, compering the evening and playing some timpani. Bobby Lyle opened soulfully on grand piano and keyboard with the Starship Orchestra , a brilliantly tight jazz-funk quintet who accompanied everyone for the rest of the evening. “Living in the Flow” and “The Genie” were instrumental hits for him, the latter produced by Connors in 1980. Some Herbie synth styling mixed with classical piano influences. Vocalist Jean Carne introduced Marva King, a new singer with Connors’ band, and his “secret weapon.” Her powerfully emotive melisma stood out in her version of “Betcha By Golly Wow”. Gary Bartz had played sax on the original of many of these recordings in the 70s and he joined them to recreate the mood.
Carne, diminutive in sparkling red, came on to driving funk with huge energy and charm, her voice glorious. In 1974’s “Mother of the Future”, she improvised brilliantly with Bartz, trading ideas. She took requests from the audience, singing song segments acapella with perfect tuning and timing.(“Does anyone remember the first line?” she joked.) The audience contributed some impressive backing vocals on “Don’t Let it go to Your Head”; Carne sang Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and Connors’ “You Are My Starship” with intuitive timing. Lyle and Connors joined them for Pharaoh Sanders’ “The Creator has a Masterplan”, Connors joining in the vocal improvisation on an extended coda.
The gigs were part of the South Bank Centre’s “Summer: In the Black Fantastic” series of events and exhibitions, where “artists recontextualise the past and invoke a future where Blackness thrives.” There was a sense of continuity- looking back to create the future; using old songs to create something new, and a wonderful rapport between musicians.
Categories: Live review