Under the capable and deft hand of Marshall Allen, the Sun Ra Arkestra, against all odds, continues to tour and record. The band sounds as good as ever, the costumes and stage antics are still good clean fun, and most Earthlings still haven’t caught up.
The Arkestra, an effective mix of elder members and relative newcomers, mines the exhaustive, almost Ellingtonian output of music composed by Sonny Blount (Sun Ra) himself, extending the repertoire with works by Marshall Allen and Arnold Jenkins. This enormous body of work covers an impressively wide gamut of styles and sounds.
For their early set from their second of three nights at Iridium last month, the Arkestra began with a customary “sun salutation,” chanting “the world is waiting for the sunrise” over a hypnotic extended vamp, then reversed direction with a lively swing chart called “The Cosmic Hop,” which sounded just like that. Throughout the hour-and-a-half set there coursed a strong vein of hard bop and swing, liberally mixed with modal chants, free and conducted improvisation, even classic ballad. This would be an ambitious stylistic range for any band, but the Arkestra handles it all with the seeming ease of masters.
With the exception of Ra’s arrangement of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the Arkestra’s new release, Music for the 21st Century
, seems preoccupied with music I identify with the ‘60s—repetitive patterns as vehicles for solos, leading to interludes of free or conducted improvisations, all generously laced with roots jazz and swing. Music for the 21st Century
is well recorded and makes a fine document of the Arkestra’s current state, but there’s no substitute for the live experience, and I encourage all who haven’t already done so to catch this band as soon as possible. Duke Ellington died while I was still a young man, blissfully unaware of his monumental achievements and integral place in American culture. The Arkestra, even without its inimitable founder, remains a vital part of the culture too, continuing and augmenting Ra’s great contributions. There won’t be another band like it.