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Moers Festival Interviews: Marshall Allen

Martin Longley By

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The Sun Ra Arkestra are spending a lot of time on the road in recent months, and since this interview was conducted a few weeks ago, their saxophonist and musical leader Marshall Allen has celebrated his 95th birthday. Your scribe met with him following an opening night gig at the Liège jazzfest in Belgium. It was in the all-standing Reflektor club, which immediately encouraged a more informal audience response, complete with drinking, gyrating and, when it was time for the Arkestra's traditional roaming around the room, an exuberant sense of interaction between players and punters. The glittering Allen remained on stage, taking his electronic wind instrument out to the furthest reaches, whilst a wedge of the Arkestra's horn section shuffled and skipped in-between the crowd, drawing the hour-or-so set to a joyous close.

After a short break, your scribe descended into the venue's block-stone basement dungeon, and into one of the band's dressing chambers, where Allen could be found unwinding, tired but communicative. How does the Arkestra choose its path for a set, whether at a club, or a festival? "It's what I feel for the audience we got, the people we're playing for, the place, how the auditorium sounds," Allen explains, giving a frank gaze. "You can change it, because it's different in each hall. You have to change your arrangements, alter them according to where you're playing. Even if I play the same music, it's going to be different. I don't play everything the same each night. The melody's there, and I change it according to the way I feel. You change the arrangement, just like you change a conversation. You don't say what you said yesterday."

At the soon-coming Moers Festival in Germany, Allen will be leading the Sun Ra Arkestra again, probably playing a set around the same length as this one in Liège. "If you change the room, you change your voice," he says. "But you're saying what you want to say, and the sound is different. The time don't matter, because in the old days, I played from 9pm to four o'clock in the morning, without stopping."

In the days when Sun Ra had a residency at Slugs, in NYC's Alphabet City, the nightly grind was phenomenal, as was often the case within jazz clubland. Allen still aspires to creating a similarly devoted aura to that which emanated from Ra himself, during the early decades. Allen has been a member since 1957, and took the Arkestra reins in 1995, following Ra's demise in 1993. "They have to pay attention, they're listening, each of them, like they're supposed to do," Allen points out. "There's rules. You can play in the square, and play 'correctly' every night, or you can play in the spiral, so I'm gonna choose that one, and then I'm not in the box. There's living music, and this is the way I feel today."

Allen says that he deliberately tries to surprise the Arkestra, aiming for derailment. "Every night," the band members sitting around the room murmur, laughing. Allen likens the process to the choices between eggs, beans, or merely a coffee, all permutations of which will still be subject to being deemed 'breakfast.'

The ewi (electronic wind instrument) has a tendency to be one of the most tasteless in jazz, often controlled by the wrong hands, but Allen winkles out sounds that have more of a ripped, fulsome edge, a sometimes brutal, untethered synth-nature. "I hear that, and I feel that, and I'm not afraid to play that, and there's no wrong or right, in that sense, I take a squeak and make it part of the music. Or if you slide a chair across the floor, that's part of the music, but you gotta put it in the right place." Allen talks about snatching sounds from the ether and filtering them through electronics.

"I'm playing living, feeling music of every day. It's the spirits of the big knowledge. Everyone thinks they know everything, but there's the unknown, so I'm reaching for the unknown things, that comes from the spirit. The natural things. It protects you, as you go every day, and you don't even realise it. It's just like sending a message to the world. No matter how small it is, or how big it is..."

Allen says that he's playing for his own well-being, but in the process, this will spread out into the collective well-being of the audience. "A small vibration, touching others, to make them feel something. Get people to listen to each other, and solve the problems, or make a contribution, " Allen sagely concluded.

Photo credit: Michael Jackson
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