Sun Ra Arkestra under the Direction of Marshall Allen
The Ritz Theater; Jacksonville, Florida • February 20, 2016
by Bob Pomeroy
The Ritz Theater in Jacksonville was a very appropriate venue for the Sun Ra Arkestra. The theater was originally built in 1929 to serve the La Villa neighborhood, a historically black area of town. The Ritz was a focal point of a community that was known as the “Harlem of the South.” The current theater was rebuilt in 1999 and serves as a performance space and museum focusing on the black experience.
The musician remembered as Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount in 1914. He was a composer, arranger, artist, poet, spiritual seeker and an originator of the Black consciousness movement. Sun Ra blended Egyptian iconography and science fiction to create an alternative narrative where black people were literally not of this world. His music blended blues, big band, innovations in electronic instruments, and free improvisation. Sun Ra’s influence radiates beyond the jazz world to influence bands a diverse as Funkadelic and Yo La Tengo.
While Sun Ra left this world in 1992, the Arkestra carries on under the direction of Marshall Allen, a long-time member of the Arkestra, composer and alto sax player who turns 92 this year. Under Allen, the Sun Ra Arkestra continues to keep the legacy alive while at the same time, adding to and expanding the ideas of Ra. The current version of the Sun Ra Arkestra is a fourteen strong ensemble who took the stage in sequin spangled capes and headgear looking a bit like a Las Vegas Star Trek review as imagined by a fan of King Tut. Singer Tara Middleton set the tone for the night intoning, “this world is not our home.” The band took the us on a tour that started in the dance halls of Chicago before World War II out to the rings of Saturn and back again.
While Marshall Allen is the musical director, alto sax man, Knoel Scott, acted as the master of ceremonies and chief jester. He introduced “Angles and Demons at Play” giving Marshall credit for composing the music to Sun Ra’s words. Scott sang counterpoint on the tune to Middleton’s lead. During one of the longer, experimental pieces, Scott danced in front of the band, doing cartwheels and break dance moves. The Sun Ra Arkestra has always been a show band.
Dave Hotep got to step out front on the slow jam, “Blues in G.” The guitarist bent notes and used his whole body to draw out his solo. NRBQ leader, Terry Adams, brought the rock edge to “Rocket Number 9”. The tune has been a staple of both Sun Ra and NRBQ shows for decades. While Adams is a consummate showman in his own right, he played sideman with the Arkestra. When the songs called for some electronic freak out tones, they came from Marshall’s wind-driven synthesizer rather than Terry’s keyboards.
It’s a traditional that a Sun Ra concert ends with “Space is the Place”. The horn players left the stage and paraded through the audience, while Marshall Allen, Tara Middleton and the rhythm section stayed on stage. The song has become a cathartic, spiritual experience for fans who sing and second line with the wandering band members.
Like the Ritz Theater, the Sun Ra Arkestra curates the past while looking to the future.