Sun Ra Arkestra Blasts Off at Sunset in Saugerties

Sun Ra Arkestra band leader and saxophonist Marshall Allen has lived on Earth for a century, but on Saturday night at Opus 40, he pointed to the sky and asked the sold-out crowd “why can’t we go somewhere there?” suggesting he’s still not done with his exploratory, interplanetary jazz mission.

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On the Arkestra’s second of two nights headlining Opus 40, part of an eclectic series from Hudson Valley promoters Chosen Family Presents, the 17 piece big band played an energetic 100 minute set, and the 100-year-old Allen never let up for a minute. His ostinato, high-register alto sax and NASA-approved EVI synth sax playing excited the crowd who were in reverent awe of the living legend. 

And while recent pieces about Allen’s 100th birthday have populated the pages of The New Yorker and The New York Times, and have certainly enhanced his celebrity, Marshall Allen is pretty much the same musician he’s always been – an acolyte and torch bearer for the life’s work of his old boss Sun Ra. Perhaps that’s why Allen closed the night with this message: “Going to outer space as fast as I can. Ain’t got time to shake your hand.”

It’s hard to shake hands when you’re busy wailing on the sax and tapping your feet. And, let’s face it, the Arkestra isn’t really about one player: it’s an ensemble of the first order, and perhaps the most colorful one going. Adorned in the brightest of future-Egyptians-from-space garb, each member of the Arkestra added his or her individual hue to a melting pot of American, world, and extraterrestrial music. Only the Arkestra can vacillate genres so easily, from free jazz to New Orleans second line to Afro-Futurism to deep blues, to the sound of pure, carefree joy encapsulated in the divine vocals of Tara Middleton.

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While it was a hot and muggy day, the evening shade was pleasant and the setlist included a number of shout outs to the cooperation of Mother Nature. While night one was punctuated by some rain, Saturday’s weather got cooler as the band got hotter. Lyrical references to sunsets, sunshine, and the open sky only seemed to help things. And while the band is largely composed of older men, the audience was diverse in age. Children danced alongside parents and hipsters sat on blankets next to aging Deadheads – it was a reminder that Sun Ra music is wonderfully uniting. You can parse it for its academic significance to avant-garde music and the Black experience, or you can let your mind go entirely and just shake your ass to the polyrhythms as the band encouraged in “Carefree”.

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Aside from Middleton’s exceptional performance, it’s important to note another member of the Arkestra who stole my attention for long periods of the set. Knoel Scott’s fiery performance on alto sax, baritone sax, conga drum, and vocals stood out. For a number of years now, Scott (who actually played with Sun Ra back in the 80s) has been the de-facto music director and it was fun to watch him signal for the trombones to punctuate a repeating-phrase, or when he called the band back to the head. The guy was intense in the best way possible, with his eyes often rolling back in his head and he attacked his conga drum. At one point, he was noticeably perturbed that the band (who might have been having a little issue with their monitors early in the set) didn’t end a tune together. But, this was just the galactic forces having some fun because one of the lyrical themes of the night was “What do you do when you know that you’re wrong? You’ve got to face the music. You’ve got to listen to the cosmic song” and “You made a mistake. Make another mistake and do something right”. 

There were far more “right moments” than mistakes during Saturday’s set. Pretty much every time the group went into “big band mode” for the head of a tune, it was striking just how loud and dynamic the horns were. Trumpeter Cecil Brooks took a number of fine solos and bassist Tyler Mitchell had several shining moments where his soulful walking bass lines ignited the rest of the group. Younger band members Anthony Nelson (baritone sax) and Robert Stringer (trombone) also impressed. Nelson enhanced the low end all night, doubling basslines. Stringer’s solo with a mute late in the set was a particular crowd pleaser. Farid Mitchell also did more than a yeoman’s job as the Sun Ra stand-in on keyboards, especially when he played some rad organ sounds in the set-closer while wearing an incredible mask (my vote for the best Arkestra stage costume).

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As for the compositions, the Sun Ra-written hard bop composition “Dancing Shadows” was an exceptional blend of Arkestra poly-rhythm percussion, a tightly played head, and trumpet and alto solos that dipped their toes into the avant-garde stratosphere. The current incarnation of the Arkestra plays jazz a lot more “in” than “out” with Allen adding the “free” elements as more of a garnish than a main dish. Certainly adventurous Ra adherents know that exploring Arkestra albums is sonic adventuring of th first order. Some albums are pretty straight and others send your ears to Jupiter. Those seeking to hear a well-recorded version of “Dancing Shadows” might take a look at the Sun Ra release on ESP-Disk “Nothing Is…”. The album (a personal favorite) features an excellent live performance from a 1966 tour of New York State colleges. 

“Boma”, a Marshall Allen composition inspired by a river in Congo, was also a noteworthy moment for a couple of reasons. The piece only exists in the repertoire of the Arkestra in the “under the direction of Marshall Allen” era and it’s a reminder that this particular group of musicians have released a few stellar records in their own right that not only carry on a tradition but have mined new asteroid belts and continue to write. “Boma” is African-influenced and it sounds timeless like much of this music. It could be ancient or from the year 2250, it’s hard to say. What it shares with the Sun Ra music of the past is percussion that extends beyond the jazz cannon and into the African continent in particular (it’s kind of like the music the Arkestra was playing in the early 80s with Salah Ragab and the Cairo Jazz Band and not all that far removed from the reverie of artists like Fela Kuti who just relentlessly groove). 

During the show, I saw a fair amount of people rocking t-shirts with stealies, skulls, and roses on them and I was struck by just how much the live music of The Grateful Dead shares with the Arkestra. Even though the bands operate in different genres, their most analogous characteristics are their emphasis on collective improvisation, which makes it so fun to watch various members of the group to see just exactly how they are coloring the mix. Both groups also have an incredible ability to hold an audience in the palm of their hand. At times the music may fall short of expectations, but when it’s firing, like it was during “Carefree” towards the end of Sun Ra Arkestra’s set, the divide between performers and audience crumble and EVERYONE knows that the music is right. You can see it on the faces of the musicians and you can turn around and see that just about everyone is out of their lawn chairs and dancing. It’s a special kind of magic, especially when  you’re on top of a mountain in a gorgeous sculpture park like Opus 40. 

And like bearded Bobby Weir, Marshall Allen is a mainline back to the origin of Sun Ra, an American original just like Jerry. Just as Jerry took his roots in bluegrass and folk music and mined new territory in psychedelic rock music, Sun Ra left a world of big band jazz standards and oddball lounge music in search of something bigger, more spiritual, and decidedly weirder (and consequently more original). 

Let’s be glad that Marshall Allen continues to play and preserve this music so that new ears can fall down the wormhole of endless recordings that the Arkestra left behind. And what’s more, let’s celebrate that this music can still be shared in person, where the experience is transcendent, immediate, and always unexpected. 

Marshall Allen is here on Earth, but only to remind us that space is the place. His final frontier feels distant yet, and I’m ecstatic that because of his recent birthday, his star is burning brighter than ever. 

Setlist: Face the Music, Sunology, Dancing Shadows, Dorothy’s Dance, Love in Outer Space, Boma, Make Another Mistake, Space is the Place/If We Came From Nowhere Here, Blues Jam, Care Free, Watch the Sunshine

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