Sun Ra was one of the great (and most under valued) jazz men of the twentieth century, a visionary pioneer of a singular type of futuristic free jazz which was widely overlooked during his lifetime but is being re-evaluated as culturally significant by many artists and critics today. Having left the planet in 1993, Sun Ra’s band, the Arkestra, have continued to record, compose and tour ever since and are now lead by the 88 year old saxophonist Marshall Allen, himself a member of the Arkestra going back to 1957. They came to The Barbican last Saturday as part of the fourth edition of the Transcender Festival, a Barbican led festival that aims to bring together ‘sonically connected music forms’. I’m not quite sure about the remit of the festival ( a bit more on that later) but the gig itself was stupendous.
I’ve been a fan of Sun Ra’s for some time, for me he’s one of the great characters of the twentieth century – insisting he was from Saturn, ignoring musical trends to plough his own distinctive furrow, hand making his own glittery bizarre costumes, pioneering the use of the synthesizer in jazz – what’s not to like? His music is, in the main, challenging – at times it’s unlistenable, but when he hits his stride its both staggeringly other-worldly and incredibly sophisticated. So, I went into the gig a fan with already a convert to the church of Sun Ra. Nevertheless, I left with a new found appreciation of the man, his music, his band and his ideas. With a twelve piece band, the Arkestra came to make NOISE. With Marshall Allen leading on Alto Sax, backed by three further saxophonists in Knoel Scott, James Stuart and Danny Ray Thompson, Cecil Brooks and Fred Adams on trumpets, Dave Hotep on guitar, the stunning Farid Barron on piano, Elson Nascimento on percusiion and surdo and the lineup completed by Stephen Mitchell on bass and Craig Haynes on drums – what we had on stage was an ensemble of musicians who had each completely and utterly mastered their instruments.
This allowed for true improvisation and virtuoso solos from all involved, with Allen casually conducting – occasionally having a word in the ear of one of the musicians as he wandered the huge stage. The music veered from freeform cosmic jazz jams to blues numbers and straight ahead jazz standards, as when they played Smile, beautifully led and sung by Barron on piano, and the most touching, sentimental moment of the whole three hour gig.
They played some Sun Ra ‘hits’ – breaking into a fantastic rendition of Rocket Number Nine…..with a tight, fast breakbeat that almost sounded like early nineties Jungle and ended the show with a long, drawn out version of Sun Ra’s anthem – Space is the Place. In between there were moments of true musical beauty, such as when Allen played his strange electronic wind instrument which floated over the rest of the music like a strange martian bird; great fun – as when one member or the other decided to have an impromtu dance around the stage, knocking over amps and instruments as they careered about, possessed by the odd rhythms, and true joy – when the whole arkestra came down into the audience and traipsed through us all, like the finest marching band that ever existed.
The lights were staggering, too, with the visual show produced by Mystic Lights, a psychedelic crew who’s set up seemed to consist of a hundred old overhead projecters and a few lava lamps, but who bathed the auditorium in such amazing colours and patterns that you could be forgiven for thinking your drink had been spiked. The only downside of the whole experience for me was the accompanying DJ sets – one from Hieroglyphic Being in the interval and the other from Mala, after the show had finished. They were picked because they can be identified as purveyors of ‘Afro futurism’, which was the theme of the night, and also helped the show fit in with the over arching Transcender festival remit. The problem was that, after hearing such kaleidoscopically colourful music, the selections of HB and Mala felt impossibly flat, and grey. I’ve never liked dubstep, its always seemed too blokeish for me – way before the term brostep was ever dreamt up, but in this context it just seemed ridiculously dull. Hieroglyphic Being was a tad more interesting, but, again, he just couldn't live with the staggering music that had preceded him. I know I wouldn’t like to DJ after a Sun Ra Arkestra gig, its a tough act to follow, but it felt that neither of them really wanted to compliment the experience and were just deafly doing their usual thing. A shame, because beyond that, it was one of the most remarkable, brilliant gigs I’ve ever witnessed.