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Sun Ra Arkestra at SFJAZZ Center

Sun Ra Arkestra at SFJAZZ Center

Courtesy Rick Swig

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Sun Ra Arkestra
SFJAZZ Center
Summer Season
San Francisco
July 18-21, 2023

Though on the surface, Dead & Company and the Sun Ra Arkestra—the first a Grateful Dead offshoot focusing on rock tunes featuring extended jams, the other an avant-garde jazz ensemble that remains ahead of its time—might seem really different, in fact they share surprising similarities. Both recently performed multi-night concerts in San Francisco. Dead & Company which has inherited The Grateful Dead's large cult following, was celebrating its farewell tour at the Chase Center Stadium. A few nights later, the Sun Ra Arkestra would commence a four-evening run at the SFJAZZ Center.

The Grateful Dead and the Sun Ra Arkestra have more similarities than one might think. Both Dead & Company and the Sun Ra Arkestra, an orchestral entity evolving both spiritually and musically since the 1950s, have ardent followers as well as tons of recordings, including numerous live recordings made by ardent, peripatetic fans who have followed them around from show to show. Many books have been written about both. Phil Lesh, formerly bassist for The Grateful Dead, told Forbes in 2022 that "The basic inspiration for The Grateful Dead was the Miles [Davis] Quartet with Coltrane or Trane's quartet from the early Sixties." Both the Grateful Dead and the Sun Ra Arkestra played two legendary rock halls The Fillmore East and The Fillmore West. The Arkestra paid an impromptu visit to Cairo in 1971, while the Dead—in search of harnessing some mythical spiritual power—rocked Egypt's pyramids in 1978. Bands as diverse as MC5, Sonic Youth and the Violent Femmes have been influenced by the Arkestra's compositions. Lady Gaga gave Ra one of the musical credits for her 2013-tune "Venus."

The Arkestra is not a retro band that lives in the past. Several albums have been pressed in recent times, notably Swirling (Strut Records, 2020) and Living Sky (OmniSound, 2022). Given the talent shown by its current members, we can expect more in the future. After all, since the founding of Saturn Records in the 1950s, the Arkestra's output has been prolific, both in terms of originals and reissues.

How did this trailblazing ensemble get its start? It all came down to one farsighted individual. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 22, 1914, Herman Poole Blount was known as Sonny from an early age. In either 1936 or 1937, during the only year at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville for which Blount was able to swing the financing, he had a dream vision wherein mysterious robed figures summoned him. He was admonished to stand inside a beam of light before being transmitted to the planet Saturn. After a fellow dormitory resident read his diary entry referencing this to the dorm's fellow students, he took the name Sun Ra. As he put it to biographer John F. Szwed:

..."my whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up I wasn't in human form I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn; they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools the world was going into complete chaos. I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That's what they told me."

His Sonny Blount Orchestra became the top swing band in Alabama. But Ra was not satisfied. Purchasing a one-way train ticket in January 1946 to Chicago, Ra found work as a pianist and arranger for Fletcher Henderson. He joined a Black Nationalist secret society in the South Side which urged Black men to consider the potential importance of outer space in improving their lot.

Then he came up with the name Sun Ra Arkestra, It was a clever name choice as "Arkestra" spells "ra" both backward and forward. The band was varyingly billed as the Myth Science Arkestra and also as Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra. Ra made his first recording with his longstanding Arkestra band member Pat Patrick whose estranged son Deval Patrick served as Governor of Massachusetts. (Patrick left the band in 1988 and died in 1991). Seminal member and former band leader, the late John Gilmore—who once informally tutored John Coltrane—joined In 1954. Baritone saxophonist and flutist Danny Ray Thompson joined the band in 1954, and held forth with the band for decades, sometimes managing it, before transitioning in 2020. The best-known member after Ra and Gilmore, 99-year-old alto-sax innovator Marshall Allen, has played almost exclusively with the Arkestra since 1958 and is the non-touring band leader. Through the years, notable musicians who have rotated through the band include such superb instrumentalists as Pharoah Sanders and Billy Higgins. And, in addition to fronting his own band, Ra also wrote arrangements for B.B. King and for Johnny "Guitar" Watson.

By the late 1950s, the Arkestra was donning innovative Egyptian or science fiction-themed clothing. In a truly futuristic move, they began projecting films during performances while marching around venues and vocalizing while playing drums and horns.

The groundbreaking low-budget film Cry of Jazz was released in 1959. Sun Ra went on to produce hundreds of recordings and toured extensively. Ra became one of the first musicians to adopt a Moog synthesizer (after inventor Robert Moog gifted him one in 1970). Not only was this the first synthesizer employed by a jazz group, but it also may mark the first use of an electric instrument of any kind employed in a jazz ensemble. He also held a short 1971 UC Berkeley-stint teaching a course titled "The Black Man in the Cosmos." Following Ra's transition back to Saturn in 1993, the ensemble was fronted successively by Gilmore and, following Gilmore's passing in 1955, by Allen. Band members still reside in the "Sun Ra House" at 5626 Morton Street in Philadelphia's Germantown. Their abode has been designated as a historical landmark. Sun Ra moved the band here after their NYC rental house was sold in 1968.

All of that past history was very much present when the Arkestra took the stage. Four evenings dubbed "The Exploratory Side of Sun Ra." were split into two segments. The first two nights featured the more avant-garde jazzy sounds whereas the final two were titled "Swinging with Sunny" and had more tunes catering to the dance crowd who stood in front on all the nights. Certain tunes, however. were repeated on all four nights. In addition to the dynamic horn section, handclapping and audience participation both played a role in each performance.

On the first night, the onstage mood was set when a starry sky was projected above the stage on the ceiling. The band was assembled, clad in their space-age glittering best. Vocalist Tara Middleton stood stage right. Near her, donning a Shriner's cap, was bandleader, vocalist and baritone-and-alto saxophonist, Knoel Scott. (Scott now leads the touring band as the 99-year-old Marshall Allen no longer tours). The band launched into "We Travel the Spaceways," one of their anthems.

Each Arkestra tune followed a pattern. Often bassist Tyler Mitchell would open with a solo. Or versatile pianist Farid Barron began the tune. Or one of the horns offered the opening notes or a solo. The audiences found themselves in the presence of master musicians. Whether it was Mitchell thumbing his bass, Scott pumping his baritone, Chris Hemingway playing dynamically on the soprano sax, the band never failed to both entertain and astound. Musically, the band's sound ranged from free jazz cacophony to extended African-polyrhythmic percussion jams, with horn players trading their reeds for hand-drums, to music following the spirit of Ra mentor Fletcher Henderson. Ra always maintained Henderson was one of the most underrated band leaders of all time. As Sun Ra told the New York Times in 1978, "As a so-called child, I was always playing Fletcher Henderson records, even before I could read."

Vocalist Tara Middleton stepped off the stage for instrumental numbers and re-emerged when it was again her turn to shrine. Cellist Kash Killian, who has toured with the Arkestra since 1991, enriched the evenings with both his ensemble and solo playing. Scott would give the band signals, pick up his baritone (one of two played in the band) and blast solos, turn remarkable somersaults at the edge of the stage, and join other members in parading around the audience—a well-established Arkestra practice that Violent Femmes lovingly pinched to incorporate into their act.

No matter which night one attended, one could expect a series of stellar improvisatory solos—whether they be from acoustic bassist Mitchell or pianist Barron. Barron conjured wondrous sounds from both his grand piano and Moog synthesizer. On occasion, he would toss his leg up atop his soulful-sounding stand-up piano keyboard.

Classics such as "We Travel the Spaceways" and "Space Is The Place" were both performed each evening. "Tapestry from an Asteroid" was played the first two nights, and "Dancing Shadows," "Chopin" and "Night of the Living Sky" were performed that first evening. Scott also briefly displayed a painting of Sun Ra to the audience.

Friday night's opener "We're Living in the Space Age" was followed by "Dancing Shadows," "What color are you? / Are you the color of fog? / Are you the color of sound? / Are you the color of thought, singularity, sight simularity?" Two trumpet players stepped out stage right to blow frantically as the band segued into a polyphonic jam. Worthington intoned on flute. During the dynamic "Angels and Demons At Play," Barron came down cacophonously on his 88s with the palms of his hands. Two percussionists—Elson Nascimento (a member since 1988) and Jorge De Silva, held down the beat next to drummer George Grey (who has toured extensively with Abdullah Ibrahim).

The dynamic, African-redolent tune "Boma" was another highlight of the evening. "Chopin" and Coleman Hawkins' "Queer Notions"—a harmonically adventurous swing tune from the early 1930s popularized by Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra—were others.

"Door of the Cosmos," the Saturday-night opener, was followed by a version of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," a tribute to recently transitioned Tony Bennett. "Queer Notions" and "Tapestry from an Asteroid" were reprised from Friday, and "Swirling" was also on the menu before the customary finale "We Travel the Spaceways" which was coupled with "Fate In a Pleasant Mood" and "Space is the Place."

Sunday night included such classics as "Saturn" and "Cherokee." The night ended with a short but sweet encore duet between Scott and Middleton on "They'll Come Back." And indeed the Arkestra will!

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