CD REVIEW: Sun Ra Arkestra Under the Direction of Marshall Allen – Babylon Live

Sun Ra Arkestra Under the Direction of Marshall Allen – Babylon Live
(In & Out Records. IOR 77122-9. CD review by Andrew Cartmel)

The ‘Babylon.’ where this live session was recorded on 21 May 2014 turns out to be — perhaps disappointingly — the name of a club in Istanbul. This was the Arkestra’s third visit to Istanbul, and the opening salvo in a world tour celebrating the centennial of Sun Ra (Herman ‘Sonny’ Blount)’s birth — or his “arrival on planet Earth”, to put it into correct Ra terminology. Sun Ra abandoned the planet in 1993 and since his departure the Arkestra has been under the extremely able command of alto sax stalwart Marshall Allen.

Opening with the moody mystery of tribal drums, Astro Black is almost immediately propelled out of the jungle and into outer space by the chanting vocals from Tara Middleton, singer, lyricist and violinist for the Arkestra. RA #2 is a vehicle for intergalactic call and response, starting with James Stuart (successor to the mighty John Gilmore) on tenor sax, succeeded by Cecil Brooks on trumpet and Vincent Chancey’s French horn, and then the towering sound of 92 year old Marshall Allen’s alto in a whooping, soaring sound collage which comes to a slow-motion car crash finale.

The Arkestra has always been a little like a great Duke Ellington band on acid, and this resemblance is emphasised on Saturn which presents a swirling and limpid piano intro byFarid Barron which flows into the full orchestral (or Arkestral) assault. It’s a benign onslaught, though, with James Stuart’s tenor emerging from the pack.

James Stuart is also a hero of Discipline 27B, which opens with a boppy, bouncing pulse from Danny Ray Thompson’s baritone sax which Stuart follows with a distinguished, extended sax solo that gradually bends in a fakir-in-the-bazaar direction before returning to scorching Coltrane territory. Cecil Brooks also excels on muted trumpet.

On reflection, it shouldn’t be such a (pleasant) surprise to hear Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish’s Stardust being given the Arkestra treatment — the galactic title alone is enough to earn it inclusion in the band’s book. This re-imagined standard is an opportunity for Tara Middleton to show what she can do on vocals, but is also a display case for Farid Barron’s piano, with the orchestra providing the velvet cushion for the strewn jewels of his solo. What’s more, it gives solo space for the powerful alto of Knoel Scott, a magnificent mainstay of the Arkestra and one who gets short shrift in the booklet notes — no doubt out of modesty, since he wrote them.

Care Free #2 features Marshall Allen on EVI (electronic valve instrument). It begins as a stately, declamatory dance and proceeds into an odyssey of wonderfully whooping, warbling electronica — song of a cybernetic bird — like something out of the Forbidden Planet, kept just slightly earthbound by the precision mooring of Barron’s piano playing and the occasional fat blast of Danny Ray Thompson’s baritone.

This dynamite slice of recent Arkestra doings comes complete with a handsome colour booklet which does justice to the Arkestra’s wild costumes and includes notes which provide some useful details of members’ names and solos played.

The CD is also available in a limited deluxe edition that features a DVD of the Arkestra performing the same set, filmed live at the club. This is a valuable document, a highly proficient and professional film that genuinely recaptures the full experience of the band in action. The added visual dimension makes the performances intoxicating, thrilling and hypnotic, with the bonus that it allows the more analytically minded to discover exactly who plays what and when — and how! The DVD covers all the music on the CD, with three additional tracks, one of which is the wonderful Unmask the Batman. This classic song is in part a duet between Middleton and Knoel Scott; it’s notable not least for Barron’s boogie woogie piano and is further confirmation of James Stuart’s hero status on tenor, while Dave Hotep really lets rip on electric guitar. No true Ra aficionado will want to be without this documentary delight.

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