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Sun Ra Arkestra at the Victoria Theater

Harry S. Pariser By

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Sun Ra Arkestra
Victoria Theater
San Francisco, CA
August 3, 2013

A line of jazz fans snaked around the block from the front of the iconic Victoria Theater, centrally located on 16th Street in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District, halfway down Capp Street. The crowd spanned age, gender and race; the buzz remained palpable despite the fact that the parents the majority of ticket holders would not have even met all those decades ago when the headliner played its first gig. "I saw them 18 years ago in Philadelphia, they were awesome," a 30-something female declared. Others worked the line with plaintive pleas for extra tickets. Finally, patrons rounded the corner and were admitted into the inner sanctum and the chance to see the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra.

Sun Ra himself— the prolific composer-philosopher, myth-creating, mind-bending mood-creating playing pianist and master of the Moog synthesizer— would not be performing, having begun his astral travels two decades prior, when he passed away in 1993. However the Sun Ra Arkestra, the magnificent big band he established that is currently conducted by the indefatigable 89-year-old Marshall Allen, was on tap. A legendary free- jazz alto saxophonist with a style dubbed "pyrotechnic," Allen also performs on the EVI (an electronic valve instrument); he has been playing with the Arkestra since the 1950s. While the members of the Arkestra have numbered as many as a hundred-strong (all of whom once assembled for a performance in Central Park), Allen has engaged eleven long-timers for this tour, along with some recent additions; he also invited the talented San Francisco-based cellist/multi- instrumentalist Kash Killian, a founder of Ancient Future, to play with the ensemble.

Dancer Wisteria Moondew, in from Mexico, was joined by vocalist Tara Middleton. One pleasant surprise was Farid Barron, the pianist and vocalist originally discovered by Wynton Marsalis (who found him playing in the Philadelphia Central High School band). Sitting unobtrusively to stage right and wearing a black turban-like hat, Barron ably subbed for the late Sun Ra and even chipped in an impromptu "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" during the set.

Amidst scattered applause, the ensemble took the stage, adorned in its usual hallmark of distinctive glittery costumes. The late Ra once played with show bands, and took those influences into his own highly stylized productions. The opening number was the highly suitable "Interplanetary Music." The band took off in propulsive fashion, as tenor saxophonist James Stewart, an Oliver Lake Big Band member robed in blue glitter, soloed under Marshall's ardent and enthusiastic semaphore-like hand signals. The swinging "Discipline 27" followed.

The mood shifted with the start of the propulsive "Saturn," an homage to the ringed planet. Sun Ra voyaged there in 1936 or 1937, after a bright light appeared to his front, recounting the experience as ..."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."

As has been the case down through the decades, the tune served as a launching pad for the band's propulsive sonic explications as members soloed individually and in tandem.

Frank Perkins 1934 standard, "Stars Fell on Alabama," with lyrics by Mitchell Parish, followed. Its title references a November, 1833 Perseid meteor shower which fell on Alabama. The iconic, relentlessly pulsing march "Velvet" was next. The cacophonic sizzle then toned down into a sleek purr after a piano solo prelude introduced a sublime rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," also a moment of saccharine kitsch, where singer Judith Holden admirably channeled her internal Jiminy Cricket. The tune, a standard recorded by a number of jazz greats, won the 1940 Academy Award for Best Original Song and has been ranked by the American Film Institute as seventh in its list of 100 Greatest Songs in Film History.

Handclapping from the audience held sway during the title track to Fate in a Pleasant Mood (Saturn Records, 1960). "Marshall's Blues" followed and, beginning with a "dah dah dah dah de dah" refrain, "We Travel the Space Ways" ended the session in what had by then become the wee hours of the morning, employing the joyous call-and-response so typical of the Arkestra.

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