Sun Ra Arkestra, Barbican, London – review

Sun Ra’s music bristled with multiphonics and ad hoc ensemble work that was decidedly ragged at the edges. He carved out these free jazz fundamentals in the late 1950s, and chucked in the sugary voicings of Disney showtunes and palais-de-danse rhythms to surreal effect. But for all the surface eccentricities, Ra’s core values lay in solid musicianship and big band brass supported by driving swing and a strong walking bass.

Ra died in 1993, but this concert, celebrating the centenary of his birth, captured perfectly the original stylistic mélange. Each soloist delivered equal helpings of muscular blues, sharp-edged be-bop and expressionist roar. Rootsy riffs exploded into angular lines while tango and sweet dance-hall cadences supported brass players locking horns in aggressive duets. And the livelier second set opened with funky rhythms and the rap-inflected chants of “Interplanetary Music”.

Since 1995, The Sun Ra Arkestra has been directed by alto saxophonist Marshall Allen. Allen joined Ra in 1958 and his energy and playing still embody the Ra spirit. Introduced as “90 years young”, he delivered the melody of “Wish Upon a Star” as sweetly as a Duke Ellington lead and then erupted into a ferocious squawk. He cued dissonant slurs, stabs and riffs with a wave of the arms, and the next soloist with a casual flick of the wrist.

Ra’s theatricality remains intact. Dressed in spangled capes and headdresses, the band filled the stage with movement. The brass section periodically went on walkabout and, every so often, saxophonist Knoel Scott launched into a series of cartwheels and somersaults. All the while an impressive three-screen light-show relayed a mix of Egyptology, Saturnalia and what looked a bit like The Simpsons viewed through a kaleidoscope.

If Ra’s political focus is somewhat weakened, the sense of the surreal remains strong. It’s not just the spacey chants and Ra’s extraterrestrial conceits. Midway through the first set, vocalist Tara Middleton belted out “Watch the Sunshine” over sweet brass and a strict-tempo rhythm. For a moment I thought I’d been slipped a hallucinogenic powder and transported to a Butlins ballroom, circa 1956. Both sets were thoroughly enjoyable, though a muddy sound meant too much detail was lost.

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