Sun Ra Arkestra :: 02.03.05 :: Cat's Cradle :: Carrboro, NC

What is jazz?

Marshall Allen - Sun Ra Arkestra
02.03 :: Cat's Cradle
Is it a tradition, a set of standards and scales, accepted rules and ideas? Or is it a feeling, a philosophy, a way of life? Should it be a devotion to the unknown and the next idea or a way to connect with history and roots? Could it ever possibly be all these things at once? Sun Ra was a giant of jazz. He passed away in 1993, but his band plays on. Led by musical director and saxophonist Marshall Allen, the Sun Ra Arkestra continues to tour the country delivering some of the most potent, soul-grabbing jazz music ever written. We must take a moment now and talk about who Sun Ra was. Most have heard the name but don't know any details of the story. Though known now as an exotic relic from an age past, in his time he was incredibly controversial in jazz circles.

Sun Ra was born Herman Sonny Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, but his muse came to age in the big-band era of the 1950's. Though he led his first band at age 20, it wasn't until forming the Arkestra at age 39 that his career began to gain notice. Even early on his lyrics and song titles were already filled with mysticism, mythology, space travel, and other similarly cosmic trains of thought. The Arkestra's freewheeling stage show, complete with colorful costumes and uninhibited adventurism, perfectly embodied these otherworldly proclivities, and somewhere along the line Sonny began telling people he was from Saturn. A true jazz innovator with over 200 recordings under his belt, he was endlessly breaking new ground despite the frustrations of being frequently written off as a novelty act. He never stopped mutating over the years, encompassing everything from swing tunes and frenzied bop to group chanting over avant-garde improvisations.

Sun Ra Arkestra :: 02.03 :: Cat's Cradle
Unlike most jazz ensembles then or now, the Sun Ra Arkestra was a band. His musicians were in for the long haul, sticking by his side for decades. Saxophonist Marshall Allen was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1924 and joined the Arkestra in 1958. He's led the band for the last decade, taking over the reins after Sun Ra's longtime saxophonist John Gilmore passed away in 1995. Allen first crossed many fans' radars during his 1996 collaboration with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio in the free-form jazz improv act Surrender to the Air. The band featured a mix of all-star jammers and Sun Ra alumni, including Michael Ray, Damon R. Choice, Jon Fishman, John Medeski, Oteil Burbridge, Marc Ribot, James Harvey, Kofi Burbridge, and Bob Gullotti. Over the years, Allen has performed with a wide range of musicians including Babatunde Olatunji's Drums of Passion, Sonic Youth, and Digable Planets. He also founded the El Ra record label to release Sun Ra's music.

Sun Ra Arkestra :: 02.03 :: Cat's Cradle
The audience at Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, NC was partially seated, with standing room all around, as the 13 costumed members of the Arkestra marched onstage already playing "Cosmos Song." Eight horns plus guitar, bass, drums, and two percussionists were cranking out the demented tropical island swing. As the first set unfolded, the club turned into a joyful dancing fiesta, a swirling melee of psychedelic soundscapes melding with laid-back space age bachelor pad grooves. Marshall Allen's playing evoked decades of jazz's shifting sounds and morphing mores, grabbing history by its roots while simultaneously blasting it forward into the unknown future. Alongside occasionally directing the band, Allen unleashed labyrinthine science fiction lines of chaotic sound from a new trumpet-style electronic synthesizer instrument called the MIDI EVI. It sounds like a saxophone/Theremin Frankenstein with a dial on the bottom, and the noise that comes out is like a blast from the fantastical reaches of your imagination, howling with glee and soaring above the music. It sounded like a nightmare in paradise.

Sun Ra Arkestra
02.03 :: Cat's Cradle
Much like during Sun Ra's time, there were those in the crowd who were simply distracted by the outer space costumes and overall spectacle of the show, while others found it perfectly complemented the ambience of the music. No matter one's opinion, it's always refreshing to see a band that takes the music more seriously than they take themselves. The music is too strange to fully grasp. It clings to a base somehow suspended underneath, like a net under a fishing boat, trawling for a rhythm and finding the sea offers up plenty if given the right bait. The soft, dreamy changes and lush refrains were catchy yet tribal, accessible yet incomprehensible, and somehow danceable despite the strange time signatures - like a Walt Disney lullaby at Charles Mingus' house.

The smiling flutes and laughing horns were propped up by percussion like a nest of pillows you could close your eyes and safely fall right into. Tropical beats mixed with beautifully chanted island melodies, bird sounds, and other strange oscillating frequencies. This is the Arkestra at their cohesive weirdest, like a symphony at a carnival. Though the music is the focus, the lyrics also serve to carve out an atmosphere and lend themselves to the mood. Typically chanted or shouted lyrics include, "The secret of his magic was abstract mystery song," "The sea is rising, the sun is dancing on a magic carpet," and "If we came from nowhere there, why can't we go somewhere here?" The eternal wisdom of the opening number offered this advice: "What do you do when you know that you know that you know that you're wrong? You got to face the music. You got to listen to the cosmos song."

The show rolled on across two long sets, offering over two-and-a-half hours of sultry jazz, blues stomp, elegant shadings, and gentle phrasings. Pastoral flutes danced with blistering guitar solos as ecstatic saxophones reeled off catchy melodies. When the time came, they played themselves offstage through the dancing crowd, singing one refrain again and again, as if in a dream.

"Space is the place."

Words by: Paul Kerr
Images by: Todd E. Gaul
JamBase | North Carolina
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[Published on: 4/11/05]

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