Monday 12 December 2011

The Sun Ra Arkestra - Band on the Wall, Manchester, 10.12.11

Every ghost from Charles Mingus to Glenn Miller faces the same problem. Can it ever be the same when you’re dead and gone? If the Sun Ra Arkestra fare better than most ghost bands, it’s because creative, exploratory music was part of the brief, and musical director Marshall Allen is Ra’s ideal representative on earth, having faithfully served in the Arkestra since 1958. 

Practically, every foray into outer space - where dissonance and freeform structures are permitted, even encouraged - or a genuine mind-stretcher, like the Allen original Care Free II, was followed by an eccentric version of a jazz standard (The Stars Fell on Alabama) or a romping blues of reassuring stability. The bitter pill of advanced music was sweetened by flamboyant showmanship, and esoteric philosophy was sneaked through the door as pop culture. Sun Ra’s modus operandi  was honoured to the letter. 

Leader Marshall Allen’s form is frail but his intensity is undimmed. His way of channelling energy into concentrated staccato outbursts on alto saxophone is possibly unique. And this generation of free jazzers - like alto saxophonist Knoel Scott (who joined the Arkestra in 1979) and tenor saxophonist Charles Davis (an alumni from the class of 1955) are heroes of the age. But what process makes veteran radicals revert to the hot swing of their youth? A wild Dreams Come True did strange things to the course of jazz history; a rollicking treatment, balanced midway between satire and affection, the avant-garde turned into new traditionalism in front of our eyes. 

There was charisma aplenty from toastmaster Michael Ray (a youngblood when he joined in 1978), who sparred energetically with fellow trumpeter Cecil Brooks, and new pianist Farid Barron is a true virtuoso who whips Afro-American forms into a focused vortex of sound. 

The Arkestra score high on entertainment and innovation. They kindle an ecstasy that must find release in the massed chant, “Space is the Place”. Both sets culminated in a parade through the audience; a time-honoured ritual perhaps, but an unfailing delight. In short, they’re everything a Sun Ra ghost band ought to be, but no more. This is the cruel limitation of the best ghost bands. 

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