Sun Ra Arkestra / Richard Youngs @ Summerhall, 20 August
The lights in Summerhall’s Dissection Room dim at 21:44 Thursday night: they’d made us wait. First through a half-hour delay; then through a horrifying first act, a caterwauler named Richard Youngs, with lyrics so pedestrian it would be a miscarriage of journalism to reproduce them. Like an LSD trip gone sharply south, we know that the (many times falsely ended) non-jazz will at some point stop – though we might have to endure 1000 years of unrhythmic solitude before the blissful last caesura.
“Strange that people queue around the block just to stand in a room and talk,” Youngs says, when we cannot even muster a polite clap-spattering (Stewart Lee is in the audience tonight; we wonder if he is impressed by this biting social commentary).
But it does end, and suddenly the stage is aglitter with the classic Arkestral uniforms, one Kufi cap, an odd Pharoah’s headdress, bandleader and Sun Ra Arkestra sideman of four decades Marshall Allen in a chapeau somewhat Egyptian, vaguely papal, and thoroughly bedazzled: he leads the band into a nearly two-hour trip through the Sun Ra songbook, shocking even the Ra faithful in the audience into an interstellar state of sustained surprise. Whether we can follow the solos or not, it’s clear from the smiles onstage and off that this isn’t so much about experimentation, prophecy, virtuosity or transmitting some lost visionary’s message as it is about having fun: we’re here to be healed.
At “91 years young,” Allen could be anyone’s grandfather, if said grandfather was a saxophone wizard in a snazzy space blanket. Like your grandpa, Allen’s a veteran of the French front in World War II – you can hear it in his howitzer departures from melodies, from chord-based structures altogether – and he does feel like your grandpa, tonight, the way he relates intimately and unknowably with every member of the audience; the kind of patriarch who starts yarn-spinning and jive-talking and winking and making recondite or simply non sequitur references from the end of the dinner table; and though you’ve heard it all you’ve never heard it exactly this way, you can’t turn away. When Allen plays the saxophone (or his EVI) you don’t know what he’s saying, but you know he’s somehow right.
There’s plenty of faith in the room: like those who went to hear Paul preach, many tonight have come because Allen was a pillar of the original Arkestra, and learned from the prophet himself, the composer who John Gilmore said was “more stretched out than [Thelonius] Monk” – Sun Ra, the one who told the world, “I’m not a human being, anyway, so don’t treat me like one.” Allen and the apostles take us through what might be called Ra “hits” – Rocket Number Nine and Space Is The Place among them.
For some in the audience, though, this must sound like a lot of noise. It is. The sounds are aggressively percussive, often atonal and anti-harmonic; the groove is a manic swing, just ahead of the beat (and howling in laughter at confused would-be clappers); the players use techniques that push their instruments past their usual limits, screeching and honking … beautifully.
The Talking Heads’ David Byrne once recalled seeing Ra’s Arkestra at Studio 5 in New York, and how “as if to prove to skeptics that he and the band really could play, that they really had chops no matter how far out they sometimes got, they would occasionally do a traditional big band tune. Then it would be back to outer space.”
We do find ourselves in outer space – then are collectively surprised and delighted to find that we can still breathe. But – whether for skeptics, for the uninitiated, or just for fun – the Arkestra return us several times to familiar forms. They play the blues, brilliantly, along with big band swing, bebop, and a ballad, with some of Count Basie’s sparing precision, Ellington’s cool finesse, Bird and Diz’s pyrotechnics. This is the second most impressive thing about the Arkestra, after their escape-speed velocity, their shared Hubble-Vision: they have incredible plain old and down-to-Earth chops.
We often accuse Legacy bands of following too faithfully a successful formula. It might seem that way when recordings of Ra’s voice interrupt the music. Ra said in the 50s that he was making music for the 21st century – so now in 2015, the skeptic could ask, are Allen and company just going through the motions?
You can’t compare today’s Arkestra to, say, Lynyrd Skynyrd, or Blood, Sweat, and Tears, though. They really are disciples, not following a formula but a philosophy: the original band was made of members (like Allen and Gilmore, who died in 1995) who stayed decades with Ra because he was the most kinetic cat this side of Saturn. So today the Arkestra play through original notations of Ra tunes the master never recorded or even played live. They practice the Sun Ra way: three days a week in the “Ra house” in Philadelphia, playing night and day, practicing and practicing a set of tunes that the band won’t play when they actual get to the gig. And though Allen isn’t as demanding as Ra (who would throw players in “Ra jail” on stage, calling them out to the audience; or else leave them stuck in some European burgh, for the consulate to handle) he still turns his back tonight and snaps at some of the band when they’re playing it too safe: to be a disciple requires discipline. The point is not to reproduce a Ra song for a Ra audience that wants to hear a Ra song the way they know it: the point is to play and live like Ra – that is, never the same way twice.
So there is an undercurrent of seriousness. Sun Ra’s music represents a studied rejection of every crime this planet’s human crust records, as his lyrics (like “It’s a motherfucker don’t you know, push that button your ass gotta go,” in Nuclear War) and his 1971 UC Berkeley lectures (“Man is made in the image of God – what does that make God?” he asked his students) remind us. But this music grows out of the only thing we’ve done to redeem all this – out of the best of our arts, Schoenberg and boogie-woogie and the pyramids – and in that way, no matter how spaced out the music gets, it’s built, like the blues, on our sorrows.
And this can be a lot of fun, as we see late in the set when three of the band leave the stage to march through the crowd, saxophonist Danny Ray Thompson in the lead, Dave Davis ditching his trombone to groove with some happy dancers in the crowd.
“When you’re not playing music for money or show or fame, you’re playing it for what it is, and that’s to heal,” Allen told an interviewer in 2014. “If you want a better world, you have to create better music. It’s as simple as that. We’re in a lot of trouble. We need musicians that heal people.”
Sun Ra said that Space Is The Place for that healing. Tonight, that Space is Summerhall, Edinburgh. And we may Never Be The Same.