The last two times the Arkestra played in London, they played the much more intimate Cafe Oto. Looking at the setup arrayed on the Barbican main stage, not to mention the lighting rig that had swallowed the entire back rows of the theatre, that just didn’t seem feasible. But there was never any doubt that the Arkestra had it in them to own this space.
Getting over two and a half hours of performance underway with the classic “Interplanetary Music” (1960), the 12-piece Arkestra ranged back in time past “Saturn” (1958) and “Happy as the Day is Long” (from the 40’s songbook of Sun Ra’s then employer Fletcher Henderson), to the good-time reverie of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”, from Modern Times (1936), and knitted it all together with frequent returns to the 70s Ra-chant, “Space is the Place”.
The Arkestra’s live performances had already settled into this pattern of eclectic, energised classicism as long ago as the late 70s, with fiery solos extrapolated from nursery-rhyme rhythms spilling over into seemingly spontaneous but tightly orchestrated jams. The wonder is, the music is still vibrant, optimistic and star-struck.
The Arkestra certainly look the part, robed in vivid colours like bling pharaohs, and the theatre is wombed in a larval light show concocted by Mystic Lights to evoke a trippy headspace vibe. They’ll be handing out splifs at the door next.
Each of the frontline – which still boasts veteran saxophonist and longstanding tour manager Danny Thompson – took turns to testify, or to show off by busting the odd hipster move, and there’s still plenty of fire left in this music, which swings hard but loose under the purposeful direction of alto saxophonist, bandleader, and conductor Marshall Allen. Latest recruit James Stuart’s strong, rasping tenor solo on “Interplanetary Music” asserted up-front that this is no stagnant nostalgia act, but still a vital force.
Pianist Farid Barron did a fine job in Ra’s old seat, playing with fluid grace in all styles ancient to modern, though he left the future styles to current Arkestra Helmsman (and mainstay since 1957) Marshall Allen. Just as Sun Ra was an early adopter of synthesizers, Allen impressed most tonight with his total mastery of the EVI (electronic valve instrument), which supplanted his alto as the night wore on. In Allen’s hands, the EVI marries sound colours as vivid as a synthesizer’s to the responsiveness of a reed instrument, giving his music an inimitable cutting edge.
After a first-set climax on the fiery abstractions of “Angels and Demons”, The Arkestra took a short breather whie Hieroglyphic Being, aka Jamal Moss, DJed from a poorly-situated stage in the bar area.
Moss spun a queasy mashup of jazz, disco (Donna Summer, feelin’ love) and other seemingly random juxtapositions, and monolithic beats. Think DJ /rupture, after too many absinthes.
Having already endeared himself to the audience by introducing the Arkestra with a reading from Sun Ra’s song lyric/poem “Astro Black”, HB’s strategy worked obliquely, by not pandering in any obvious way to the Sun Ra aesthetic.
DJ Mala of Digital Mystikz played a more straightforward set of post-dubstep after the second set, but wanting to leave with the sound of the Arkestra still dancing in my head, I didn’t stick around for it.
Meanwhile, back in the main hall, the Arkestra began again in a looser, more ruminative mood, posing the audience an elliptical teaser: “If you are not reality, whose myth are you? If you are not myth, whose reality are you?” They began to ratchet back up a gear or two with the edgy, volatile abstractions of “Rocket Number Nine”, but wrong-footed expectation by relaxing again into that unexpected sashay through “Smile”.
A more funky song, the R&B-flavoured “I’m Gonna Unmask the Batman” served as a prelude to a series of bracing solo statements, with pianist Farid Barron, each of the saxes in turn, trumpeter Cecil Brooks (particularly fiery), and finally guitarist Dave Hotep, all juggling red-hot potatoes while their colleagues kept time with handclaps. All the while video loops of Sun Ra played on the backdrop.
A languid, almost soporific groove with Allen soloing on EVI slowly cohered into a vamp heralding the night’s final climax with the Arkestra’s signature song, “We Travel the Spaceways”, and their customary walkabout.
The frontline took the “Space is the Place” chant and loquacious testimonials on saxophones, trumpets and trombone out into the audience, as if sweeping them up and carrying them along on an ascendant high, and as the processional faded away, just Marshall Allen and drummer Craig Haynes remained onstage, the Arkestra reduced to its essence, still pointing the way forward.