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Sun Ra
Sun Ra

Sun Ra Arkestra directed by Marshall Allen at the Star Theater in Portland. Monday, July 17th, 2023 / Review

By MICHAEL SHOEHORN CONLEY // Each individual human only gets one chance to see the Sun Ra Arkestra for the very first time. I imagine it is a life-changing experience for most of us. 

Each individual human only gets one chance to see the Sun Ra Arkestra for the very first time. I imagine it is a life-changing experience for most of us. My first time was over 30 years ago in Massachusetts, and Sun Ra himself was presiding, with a straight face, bearing matching paddles inscribed “fanny whacker” and “attitude adjuster”, which he applied to the posterior parts of willing fans as he made his way through the awaiting throng. Unforgettable.
Now the Alabama-born Ra is long gone (1914-1993), but his legacy is thriving in the current unit directed by 99-year-old alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, who joined Ra in 1958.

The Star Theatre was decorated for the occasion, with astronomical symbols and silver ankhs and pyramids adorning the room. The band assembled on stage wearing sequined jackets, sparkly capes, and other iridescent clothing, each member wearing a hat– including fez's, turbans, and festooned bucket hats.

Things got underway when an elder musician, Knoel Scott, sat down at a conga drum and called in the rest of the band with some declarative thwacks on the skin. Scott also played baritone and alto saxes, sang, and conducted. He joined the band in 1979, and many of the other players have been members for decades.

The first song mentioned “living in the space world“, and it featured some jarring keyboard hits rendered in an avant-garde style. I was thinking to myself “those are some big shoes to fill” for the keyboardist! But over the course of the evening this player proved himself worthy of the role representing the namesake and founder of this band.

I instantly recognized the next number, “Stranger in Paradise”, done in a delightful Mambo arrangement with two baritone saxophones. The singer Tara Middleton came in with the lyric the second time through the form. She has a powerful voice and a striking stage presence as well, sometimes playing hand-held percussion.

Lest the audience get too settled into a mid-tempo vibe, the next number was an uptempo romp, a furious burner with a relentless walking bass played by Tyler Mitchell. Members of the horn section soloed on this. The trumpets were outstanding, clear and confident. Middleton sang of love in outer space.
Scott introduced a number in tribute to Marshall Allen, referencing Sun Ra’s rearrangement of a Fletcher Henderson arrangement of a Coleman Hawkins song titled “Queer Notions”, eliciting a cheer from the crowd. This tune featured the piano player Farid Abdul-Bari Barron, who demonstrated his bona fides by breaking things all the way down to some stride piano passages before bringing it right back to outer space the way the great Sun Ra himself was known to do. Along with his digital piano, Barron used an analog synthesizer to access the spacey yet warm tones favored by the late Ra, an early proponent of electric keyboards.

Readers of jazz history will know that Sun Ra’s band began its run in Chicago many decades ago and Knoel Scott referenced that fact before turning to bassist Mitchell and telling him to tell us the story. After a slightly abstract rubato intro, Mitchell plucked out a classic Chicago blues bassline and the band riffed and soloed over that for the next 15 minutes, including vocal choruses from Middleton.

Shortly thereafter Middleton and Scott were singing about “taking you to space– the next stop is Mars, the second stop is Jupiter” before playing leader Marshall Allen's own song “Swirling”. This was one of the more traditional-sounding big band numbers, replete with a sax section soli.
Scott explained to the crowd that even though Allen was not able to attend, he was here with us in spirit, and if it weren't for his efforts the band would not be out playing. I myself had been expecting to see Marshall Allen perform, but I was not upset to learn that he was home in Philadelphia. At the ripe age of 99, he probably needs to sit out a few road dates!

It is natural for an experienced listener and fan to anticipate the anthem “Space is the Place” at a Sun Ra concert, and here we got a special reading of the song as members of the horn section drifted down from the stage and marched back and forth in front of it. There was no room for the type of full-on processional that has been a hallmark of this band because the venue was just too jammed with people.

This band is all about the ostinati, repeated phrases– which they build upon to create a tension and a density rivaling the most portentous works of symphonic music or prog-rock, with the additional impact of Ra’s “tone scientists” shredding the matrix with their solo turns.

I recognized some of the band members’ names from earlier incarnations of the band– surely some of them were present when I saw the band over 30 years ago in Boston. Many of us had wondered privately how the band could go on without “Sunny” himself, baritone sax player Pat Patrick, and the extraordinary tenor soloist David Gilmore. This current incarnation of the group adroitly reflects and expresses the founder’s musical and theatrical vision.
I can only report that I was very happy to catch the Arkestra performing a live show like this, so true to the spirit of the original leader, who left our planet in 1993. Thanks to Mississippi Records for producing this 3-night residency in Portland. https://www.mississippirecords.net/calendar-2023.
Portland “video wizards” The Spoiler Room did live filming, image editing and projections of the band in real time, providing close-ups and manipulating light and color to mesmerizing effect.

One of the standout attributes of this ensemble, emblematic as it is of avant-garde jazz of the '60s, is its comprehensive understanding of the big band idiom, which they easily referenced and abandoned at will to swing between pretty, sweet melodic passages with classic chord progressions to chanting over multiple percussion, calling down spirits from the past to the future.

While much has been written about Ra’s outrageous theatrics, elaborate costumes, his speculative mythology, wild orchestral textures, and cosmic and comic rituals, what has often been overlooked is the fact that the musician born Herman Poole Blount came up as an arranger for conventional swing-era big bands and played organ in night clubs before establishing his Arkestra, and it's communal residence in a house in Philadelphia. He was the living embodiment of the Ancient-to-Futrue aesthetic in modern music, and his business model makes him a DIY icon. Long live Sun Ra!

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