Tuesday, May 02, 2006
I got tickets for this a few weeks ago, with a degree of trepidation as to what the night might actually entail. Free jazz is one of those things that can sometimes go further out than my mind can handle.
So, on Friday last, The Sun Ra Arkestra descended and took the stage in their wonderfully sequinned clothes and crazy gold headgear. Ahh, Sun Ra time! It took all of about a fraction of a second to realise that there was nothing to fear. The band very quickly found a groove that came as a pleasant surprise. In fact it was this groove that was the real story of the night. They grooved so well that much of the audience was dancing for much of the night. And this they call free jazz? I don't think so. Maybe. But what do i know?
The Arkestra played jazz. Mostly of the up-tempo, big band kind. But, of course, it was so much more. There was a strong percussive element to the music, with two full-time percussionists, as well as many of the other members having their own items of percussion. It gave the sound quite an African vibe and was a good part of the groove.
Less noticeable were the unusual chords and tones the Akestra played. Almost all of it was just slightly askew, giving the surface impression of music that was fairly conventional, but which was in fact definitely not. There was also many moments when this askew vibe took over and the band became completely free. These moments where fantastic, frantic cacophonies, which never lasted long enough to take over the whole show. Marshall Allen (top photo, right), who is now the band leader, was particularly impressive at these times.
One of the strongest impressions the band gave was that they where jamming: that things were being invented as they went along. This, of course, can be a recipe for disaster, but this was not the case here. It was clear that the band where there to entertain the crowd, as opposed to each other (although they clearly did that too) and not only that but they were having a total ball. Not more so than the two occasions when half of the band left the stage and, still playing, walked through the crowd in a near conga line (imagine a single file New Orleans style funeral and you'll be close). It was an indescribable experience to be standing right next to members of the Akrestra as they played parts of Space Is The Place.
Under Allen's leadership, the band were really tight, which was very impressive considering their cosmic jam nature. Each member got good solo spaces, with more time appearing to be given to the longer-serving members. Allen, being the longest-serving (he joined in '58), probably got the most space. Playing mostly alto sax and E.V.I. (Electronic Valve Instrument apparently), his power and the sheer noise he produced was awe-inspiring. (I just found out that he is 82 and i am absolutely stunned. Last year i saw Pharoah Sanders, who is younger, and he didn't even come close to what Allen achieved on Friday.) He was particularly exciting on the encore, when he played unaccompanied for several furious minutes, before the rest of the band piled on behind him for the most free part of the evening. In fact, that is all the encore was: just crazed, free-jazz blowing, which was a great way to end the night!
I left the venue with one thought in my head: it must be great to be in the Sun Ra Arkestra.
If you ever, ever get the chance go see them. You can't possible regret it (and if you do, what on earth are you doing reading this?). For more info on the Arkestra, check out their site.