There will never be another artist quite like Sun Ra, one of the greatest jazz composers of the 20th century and all round fascinating individual. Born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, he changed his name to Sun Ra in 1952, claimed he was from Saturn and began preaching interplanetary peace. Taking as his inspirations ancient African culture and science fiction, he combined them into an eccentric mix which would lead him to become a pioneer of Afro-futurism. His philosophy and music would go on to inspire a wide-range of artists including George Clinton of Funkadelic/Parliament, Daevid Allen of Gong and various hip-hop greats like Afrika Bambaataa and A Tribe Called Quest.
The space-man persona, eccentric costumes based on ancient Egyptian garb and experimental nature of his music made him something of an outsider, but his reputation as an innovator both musically and philosophically meant he had to be respected. Sun Ra formed The Arkestra in 1956 and under his tough leadership they would rehearse around eight hours for every hour they played live. The Arkestra would create music that was unique, with Sun Ra writing pieces for each individual member according to their musical ability and individual character. As bandleader he wanted his musicians to play with complete freedom but also be precise, aiming to create music which communicated with the wider universe.
After Sun Ra departed this realm in 1993, mostly likely returning to his native Saturn, The Arkestra was taken over by saxophonist John Gilmore. However, he also passed away, with leadership being passed on to alto-saxophonist Marshall Allen who joined The Arkestra back in 1958, appearing on well over 100 Sun Ra releases. Since taking over the band, rather than simply perform the music left behind by Sun Ra, Marshall Allen has also composed new arrangements and it was a mix of these, along with original Sun Ra compositions that would be heard during The Arkestra’s stop in Manchester to celebrate its 60th anniversary.
Not only was it 60 years since The Arkestra was established, alto sax player Knoel Scott also announced that it was also 102 years since the birth of Sun Ra and 92 years since the birth of current band-leader Marshall Allen, making it a triple celebration. Despite his years, Allen has got more energy than most of those in attendance, not that the audience were particularly lacking any on this very wet evening at Manchester’s Band on the Wall as they danced and space boogied their way through a nearly two-hour set to numbers from all across The Arkestra’s vast discography.
The eleven-piece ensemble, all adorned in sparkly space robes, were a tight fit on a stage strewn various instruments and notebooks packed with ragged and browned sheet music. Opening with “Interplanetary Music” from 1967’s We Travel The Space Ways, the early part of the set saw an issue with Marshall Allen’s sax mic which kept coming loose. After several temporary fixes using some old tape, a member of the audience handed over a fresh strip which helped solve the problem. The low stage and lack of barriers meant that this was one of those rare occasions where there was barely a foot between the audience and the band, making for a very intimate evening.
The political drive that informed much of Sun Ra’s work was still very much in evidence with songs about world peace and cosmic rights. Despite this, there was also plenty of room for humour and fun throughout, with five members of the sax and brass section leaving the stage at one point to do a lap of the venue. Overall, the music was vibrant and free, very danceable and fluid with plenty of swing. Much of the evening featured more up-tempo numbers like “Saturn” from 1959’s Jazz In Silhouette, but there was also room for something a little slower like “Springtime Again” from 1980’s Sleeping Beauty, featuring Tara Middleton on vocals.
The only downside was perhaps the lack of keys, which Sun Ra himself played. But even without them it was still a mesmerising performance by one of the greatest experimental jazz collectives of all time. Keys or no keys, there wasn’t a single soul who left the venue who didn’t thoroughly enjoy the intergalactic sounds of Sun Ra Arkestra.