The late Sun Ra always wrapped his boundary-bashing Arkestra with a hefty dollop of B-movie hokum – Egyptology, science fiction and sun worship were the main themes. The music, with its emphasis on self-expression, spontaneity and pulse, was pretty rough around the edges too, and the slabs of brass and stubby riffs could test a well-tuned ear to the limits of endurance.
Ra died in 1993, but his Arkestra continues under the direction of multi-instrumentalist Marshall Allen, and at this gig, the first of a three-day residency, the mix of dodgy tuning, sequinned robes and inspired brilliance was root-and-branch authentic. There were jauntily sung, futuristic chants on sun-related themes; sturdy, expertly crafted rhythms; and whole arrangements conjured by Allen’s sweeping gestures – “Sophisticated Lady” was Ellingtonian before other forces came into play.
The Arkestra aesthetic surfaced in the mid-1950s and informed hippie mysticism and punk rock alike, though neither idiom had the roots or technique of Ra’s bands past or present. At Café Oto, Allen, who joined Ra in 1958, attacked his alto with ferocious energy, turned to wind synthesiser at a whim – it sounds like a banshee Moog – but also played lyrical, harmonious flute. And the main soloists displayed an equally wide technical range.
Trumpeter/toastmaster Fred Adams mastered a high-note trumpet bash one moment and was brittle and spiky the next and tenor saxophonist James Stewart oozed mainstream elegance in the first set and furious phonics the second. There was a highlight blues – long-term alto saxophonist Knoel Scott as raw and on-song as a young Ray Charles on sax – and in the springy, shape-shifting rhythm section pianist Farid Barron’s jangle of riffs, tinkling-glass clusters and disjointed stride were as devious as the cobra twisted round the rim of his bowler hat.
But the Arkestra are a subversive lot, and while rhythm remains unmolested, individual virtuosity and tender moments are undercut by slabs of ad hoc brass, squawks from Allen’s sax or the drone of space-age synth – a lissom lilt found the leader serenading the front row with screechy riffs. Both sets ended with the brass snaking through a rapt, swaying and exhausted audience whipping up a tumult of applause.