REVIEW: Sun Ra Arkestra at Islington Assembly Rooms

Marshall Allen, leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra,
at Islington Assembly Rooms
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2015. All Rights Reserved

Sun Ra Arkestra
(Islington Assembly Rooms, 25 March 2015; review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

What's rather wonderful about the current Sun Ra Arkestra is not only that they are a tremendous bunch of musicians, some of whom have been with the Arkestra for more years than they may care to remember and others who are relatively new recruits, but also that they are so versatile and wedded to the idioms of jazz that they can easily confound expectations by slipping from one to another without blinking an eye.

At Islington's proscenium-arched Assembly Rooms the eleven-piece, directed by the sprightly, nonagenarian saxophonist, Marshall Allen, came across with the depth and freshness of an Ellingtonian dimension - an old-fashioned jazz big band, but anything but old style. Swing coursed through their veins, the arrangements were masterly, the section work hung together beautifully, the solos were right up there and youth mixed it with the elder statesmen to whip up a great party.

The countless albums and the arcane philosophies for which Sun Ra is known don't preclude back-referencing the straight jazz repertoire as well as the more left-field paths that Ra trod. Before adopting the soubriquet, Sun Ra, pianist Herman Blount did accompany one of his heroes, Fletcher Henderson, in the mid-forties, which helps explain the coexistence of seemingly opposed musical strands in the Arkestra's repertoire.


Sun Ra Arkestra at Islington Assembly Rooms.
Tara Middleton (big hair) behind Marshall Allen, with Danny Ray Thompson on percussion
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2015. All Rights Reserved

What to pick out? Well, early piano magic from Farid Barron, all space and mystery; powerfully mature and uplifting sax work from youthful veterans Charles Davis on tenor, Knoel Scott on alto and Danny Ray Thompson on baritone; the high, muted trumpet tones of Cecil Brooks linked up with Dave Davis's lively trombone; Tylor Mitchell's bass seamlessly twinned with the percussionists; a solid, thumping big band blues out of nowhere; the exuberant Tara Middleton picking her moment to give Ra's Walking on the Moon respectfully quirky treatment and singing the standard, Stars Fell on Alabama, with the chorus adapted for one verse to 'Stars fell on London last night'. And tremendous phrasing on alto and EVI (electronic valve instrument) from the Arkestra's leader, Marshall Allen, who kept the band right on track and ensured that they flourished as they trod the paths between the straight ahead and the explosive combustion of Space is the Place.

The Arkestra's theatrical, one-off glittery costumes could have been a distraction, but there was no need of any - they never took their eye off the ball for one moment. They were the real thing - and they will be back  - for three nights at Cafe Oto in June!

Marshall Allen – alto sax and EVI
Tara Middleton – vocals
Knoel Scott – alto sax and percussion
Charles Davis – tenor sax
Danny Ray Thompson – baritone sax and percussion
Cecil Brooks – trumpet
Dave Davis – trombone
Farid Barron – piano
Tylor Mitchell – bass
Elson Nascimento – percussion
Wayne Smith Jnr – drums

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