Getting Cosmic: The Sun Ra Arkestra

Posted on in Art + Soul by Roy Strassman

SFJAZZ Center, August 3

Sun Ra (née Herman Blount) was one of jazz’s most unique and interesting characters, much like Monk, Diz, Lee Morgan, and others.

To describe him, his music, and his life would make for highly interesting reading and is well beyond the scope of this review. He died in 1993, and one of his band’s longstanding members, 93-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen—a dancing, blowing, energetic amazement in his own right—currently leads the 17-piece group. Having been to SFJAZZ numerous times over its five-year history, I can unequivocally state that this recent performance was by far the most “far out” ever presented at this venue.

All the musicians—composing brass, reed, string, and rhythm sections—were top notch and costumed in bright, reflective Egyptiancosmic clothing motifs, many sporting exquisitely colorful and unusual headgear, which the varying lighting only magnified. The Arkestra swingingly performed a 21/2 hour concert over an extensive range of jazz history, ranging from swing to bebop to post-bop to modern and postmodern progressive to avant-garde, and all the way to some utterly outré cosmic music. Their rendition of the classic standard “Tenderly” was said to have had “de-gravitized” lyrics, so much so that I had to struggle to decipher its “space lingo.” The performance included some fine singing and dancing on the part of group members. It was engaging, exciting, sexy, often loud, and always fun—you just naturally wanted to dance and join its irresistible weird groove. Among the crowded audience were costumed 20- to 30-somethings. It was like Halloween on Uranus! The evening culminated with animated musicians dancing through the enthusiastic crowd while playing their instruments. As supercharged patrons departed the venue, happy smiling faces were everywhere.


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