Sun Ra Arkestra, Iridium, NYC- 11/1
NYC ROLL-TOP: Saturn Calling
I'm pretty sure that bassist John Ore fell asleep during a number deep into the Sun Ra Arkestra's late show at the Iridium on November 1st. Oddly, this worked to good musical effect. When Ore — who has been playing with the Sun Ra Arkestra since 1961 — (seemingly) woke up midway through the following tune, beginning with an ultra-minimal two-note pulse and working himself back into the song, it was just right. The Arkestra — piloted by Marshall Allen, as it has been since Sunny Blount's Saturanian ascension/death in 1993 and John Gilmore's death in 1995— at times seemed to be finally showing their age during their annual Halloween engagement in Manhattan (which once included Sun Ra himself leading the famed parade).
This year, the six-decade old Arkestra landed at the Iridium, which would be a lovely place to see live music if not for the occasional feeling of being milked for drink and food minimums. With jazz in retreat in lower Manhattan, the midtown dinner clubs could do something to reclaim it by offering cheaper prices and asylum for the Tonic diaspora. Either way, the Arkestra's Egyptian spacemen — at least 18 of them — looked mostly dapper in their sparkling sun-god robes as they took the stage, Ore helped to his bass by an elegant white cane.
Allen, who turned 83 in May, is still a dervish of a bandleader, blowing berserker sax solos over big band grooves ("Ra 3"), conducting his players through transitions, and building squalling atonal chords. While leaning away from the full-band chaos of the Arkestra's most psychedelic work, the song selection represented a good breadth of Ra's songbook, from the exotica-tinged "Holiday For Strings" (first recorded in 1960) to the hypnotic five-against-four patterns of "Ra 2."
Even disregarding their homespun charm, which included both their costumes and a marching tuba with its bell replaced by some DIY orange cylinder, the band seemed slightly unsure of themselves, less nimble hopping into or out of songs. With prodigal trumpeteer Michael Ray MCing, sometimes over-enthusiastically, the band took some time finding a mood, as well. Eventually, they moved into a series of songs that recalled the gentle Martian atmospheres of 1978's Lanquidity, subtly complex grooves swinging beneath swirling layers of flute and saxophone. In other places, the vibe suggested stardust gospel.
What kept the Arkestra in motion through the set, as it has since 1945, was the singularity of Sun Ra's vision. Contrived, sure, it is also such a powerful metaphor as to hold together a set of music some 62 years after its first conception: via Allen's wondrously distorting Electric Valve Instrument (at the beginning and end of the set), in their besparkled stage garb, and — of course — literally in various chants and melodies. "Going to outer space as far as I can, ain't got time to shake your hand," they sang as they exited, as if boarding a spaceship, but probably just heading someplace a real more real, if no less fantastic than space itself: the house on Morton Street in Philadelphia they've occupied collectively since the '60s, a lifelong abode for monumentally committed musicians, and which was once (and might still be) listed simply in the Philadelphia phone book under "Sun Ra."
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com