It started with a lone piano playing ragtime in the corner. Then, one by one, the Sun Ra Arkestra, draped in sequinned capes and sparkly hats, all the finery of alien regalia, stepped out from the wings singing, “Interplanetary music“. You knew then that this orchestra is truly something else.
To put it bluntly, the first minute of the show will scare the hell out of you. You’ll find yourself asking if it’s possible that age has gotten the better of them. You’ll attempt to quantify just how high they could be. Nobody in the band seemed to know or care where their mics were. They mumbled and doddered about with no reference to stage or plot until Marshall Allen decided it was time to blow. And when the man decides to blow, there is no turning back.
Allen played with all the explosive virtuosity expected of a man who has been hurtling the fruit of his lungs down a saxophone for the better part of his 89 years. For him, caution was a needless appendage and classical technique a thing for infants of the craft. He was so far beyond these supposed necessities that all minutia scattered in subordination.
Cosmic Chaos introduced the sound we were all there to hear. The trumpet opened, squealing into a microphone laced with delay. Soon Allen joined, leading the band in a chaotic miasma of stabs and bellows. The interplanetary wizard within was coming alive as he challenged and jested each soloist to embody their own wildest creation.
Nowadays it’s rare to see jazz music played with such an equal balance of prodigious skill and all-out looseness. That they shift so effortlessly from the swing, bebop and cool jazz standards into sheer chaos, only to return with what must be some of the tightest endings you could ever hear, is a wonder to behold.
Miles Davis’ All Blues slid seamlessly into the Afrocentric hurricane of Sun Ra’s own Angels and Demons at Play. In the midst of this, alto player Knoel Scott, who joined the Arkestra in 1979, rose from his seat in order to spin and twirl in a flurry of interpretive dance.
The Arkestra propelled its audience deep into the black psychedelic subconscious, while Sun Ra, playing director from his inter-dimensional star-throne, left us with one last message: Space is the Place.