mon 30/03/2020

Sun Ra Arkestra, Café Oto | reviews, news & interviews

Sun Ra Arkestra, Café Oto

Sun Ra Arkestra, Café Oto

A sparkling night of freeform exploration from the space-jazz veterans

Marshall Allen, the psychedelic Santa Claus

Dalston was the place on Friday night, as the Sun Ra Arkestra put on a trademark display of Afro-jazz excellence in the intimate surrounds of Café Oto. Jazz pioneer Sun Ra might have been dead since 1993, but his influential big band is very much alive and capable of puffing their way through marathon sets.

Dalston was the place on Friday night, as the Sun Ra Arkestra put on a trademark display of Afro-jazz excellence in the intimate surrounds of Café Oto. Jazz pioneer Sun Ra might have been dead since 1993, but his influential big band is very much alive and capable of puffing their way through marathon sets.

Formed in the mid-1950s by Sun Ra, aka visionary pianist and composer Herman Poole, the Arkestra is currently led by the famed saxophonist Marshall Allen, 89. Frail-looking but authoritative, Allen worked with Sun Ra from 1958 until the latter's death and is often referred to as “the second Sun Ra” by the legions of loyal fans who flock to hear this geriatric ensemble noodle their way through the future jazz master’s back catalogue. 

In his glittering red cape and bejewelled hat Allen looked more like a psychedelic Santa Claus than a jazz deity

Famed for its leftfield, and at times downright bizarre music policy, Café Oto has become the London home for this 14-piece outfit who return for their fifth sell-out session. Last night’s crowd was an intriguing mix of dreadlocked devotees, serious jazz aficionados and bearded hipsters eager to unlock the legacy of this mystical musician who allegedly hailed from Planet Saturn, asserted the African origins of jazz and peddled “cosmic” philosophy using music to preach peace. By the time the sequin-clad Arkestra sauntered out and assumed their positions at the front of the candle-lit space, the anticipation of something extraordinary filled the air.

Resplendent in their space funk finery, the band fanned out around Marshall Allen who at first glance, in his glittering red cape and bejewelled hat, looked more like a psychedelic Santa Claus than a jazz deity. That impression was dispelled the moment he raised his alto sax to his lips and attacked it with his distinctive “pyrotechnic” energy. While the Arkestra’s sound, with its focus on spontaneity and self-expression, might initially jar the untrained ear, Allen’s expertly created arrangements paper over the musical cracks. 

Among the highlights of their impressive three-hour set, spliced by a much-needed interval during which the smell of weed hung heavy in the night air, was the propulsive “Interplanetary Music”, the always enthralling “Discipline 27-B” with its parade of solos (trumpet, trombone, tenor saxophone and piano) and irresistible grooves, and “Space Walk”, which saw the Arkestra at their cosmic jazz-jamming best with bursts of freeform brass offset by a dash of tribal tropicalia. It’s hard to say which overall element was more shiver-inducing – Marshall Allen’s unveiling of his EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument) with its banshee squeaks and squeals, the shimmery solos of the purple-caped saxophonist Knoel Scott or the shape-shifting, tinkling riffs of pianist Farid Barron. The only low note was an off-key, warbled version of "When I Wish Upon a Star" which vocalist Tara Middleton butchered. 

The evening ended on a typically freeform flourish, with the still sparkling, still puffing musicians spread out through the swaying crowd, performing a seemingly endless version of their signature track “Space Is the Place”. It’s clear that while the Arkestra might stay true to the spirit of Sun Ra, they have evolved into a distinct musical entity. As Sun Ra himself said, “I always say it's not my Arkestra, it belongs to some other force which wants certain things, to reach other people.”

It’s clear that while the Arkestra might stay true to the spirit of Sun Ra, they have evolved into a distinct musical entity

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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