Even when it was together it was falling apart. Marshall Allen dropped his arm and the horns landed in unison on command, the dual alto, tenor and baritone saxes, the trombone and two trumpets creating a sound that was at once rough as it was smoothed, and only slightly more tuneful than it was chaotic. Allen shifted position and nodded to Michael Ray on first trumpet to initiate a solo section.
Grasping at the plastic Casio VL-Tone keyboard in his hands he could tell there was something wrong, a series of distorted static his only audible reward. Tara Middleton, standing to his right in a black and gold stripped dress which made her resemble at once a deity of ancient Egypt and a child who had been playing in the school’s costume box, leant to help him, eventually gesturing to a stage technician who jostled the requisite cables to bring the small box to life. EEaahhhNGRRRRRMRRRRRGH. Relieved, if perhaps perturbed, Marshall jabbed at the keys seemingly randomly, bringing forth loud, garbled synthesised sounds that would have been at home in an early video game. The random bleeps of electronic noise collided and ricocheted off the beautiful melody that the band was swaying to. It seemed to mesh with the cascading beauty of Farid Barron’s tasteful piano stride playing, so full of blues, feeling and technique that it would have made the old man proud.
Marshall smiled, satisfied, as the number came to an end and the next began. 12 days ago it had been his 94th birthday and here he was, leading the Arkestra as he had been since Sun Ra had passed on to the next dimension in ‘93, still standing as one part of a unit in which he had served since the late 1950s.
The 12-piece now was, as it had always been, gloriously loose, bursting at the sides and from below, each and every note, gesture, cymbal splash and conga tap overfilled with feeling. Even at their most traditional moments the approach was still as if several of the traditional styles of jazz were being viewed through the lens of a wondrous acid trip.
In the ‘70s Ra had developed a love for the music of Disney films, and in tribute the group dipped into ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ from Pinocchio. While everyone else more or less delivered a faithful rendition of the sweet melody, Marshall raised his alto sax and, with his right arm waving wildly in the air, only to then jab viciously at the twisted piece of brass gripped in his left, he let loose a cluster of skwarks, full of expression and almost obscenely out of place. Why would you ever want to play it straight? Knoel Scott put down his flute and performed an enthusiastic if clumsy set of cartwheels and moves that came across like a charmingly loose take on interpretive dance. The well dressed and largely grey haired crowd cheered and Dave Davis nodded in gruff approval. Even when it was together it was falling apart.
Written for Beat Magazine.