Cafe Oto, London
Reviewed by Tony Dudley-Evans
I have a strong memory of seeing the Sun Ra Arkestra with Sun Ra himself back in the 1980s at the Brixton Academy. It was a strange night, the Brixton Academy is a massive stand up venue, and, although there were a lot of people there, they hardly filled the space and it all felt very empty. Getting in was complicated with, as I recall, staff with large dogs overseeing and searching those coming in. The evening started with a British improvising group playing with a backing film attacking police brutality; general consensus was that they would have been better to attack the security at the venue.
After the interval the whole space was made completely dark and the Arkestra began to create a very atmospheric “cosmic” sound and suddenly a single light moved slowly across the stage, bobbing backwards and forward. Then the house lights went up to reveal Sun Ra in his flowing robes and a light in his turban raising his arms to the cheering audience.
This was a spectacular opening to what turned out to be, in my opinion, a rather disappointing concert; the Arkestra had flown in from somewhere in continental Europe that afternoon, and had run late. The playing had its moments of excitement, but on the whole the band seemed tired and the playing was a bit too loose and occasionally ragged.
Then I heard them again at the first Mostly Jazz Festival, three years ago. By this time Sun Ra himself had returned to Saturn, and the band was being led by Marshall Allen, the alto saxophonist who had worked in the band since 1958 and took over the leadership in 1995. I also had mixed feelings about a performance that didn’t really seem to settle; again there were great passages, but others that didn’t seem to gell.
This time I caught them on the second night of a five-night residency at Cafe Oto, the brilliant “alternative music” club in Dalston. On this occasion they seemed relaxed and very together as a band and this was a wonderful event. The club was rammed with a very broad audience with an age range from early 20s through at least one person in their 70s, and the atmosphere was that of a rock concert with loud cheering and whooping throughout the two sets. The Arkestra was on this occasion a 12-piece band with Tara Middleton on vocals. Five of the band had been in the Arkestra under Sun Ra himself and of course they were all dressed in full ancient Egyptian regalia.
The music ranged from full-on big band improvisation to arrangements of pieces by Fletcher Henderson from the 1930s, to a version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow sung by Tara Middleton. I was told by Laurence, sitting next to me who is attending every night, that this song was the only piece repeated from the previous evening’s show.
I was very impressed by the tenor sax solos of James Stewart, seemingly a relatively new recruit to the band, and I particularly liked the pieces in which Marshall Allen screamed away on the alto sax accompanied by rather gentle voicings from the ensemble; the contrast was most effective and really set off the alto solos.
Knoel Scott, a member since 1979, was also effective on the alto sax and a bit of dancing, including a back flip in front of the band. I also really liked the occasional forays into stride piano from Farid Barron, and both the trumpet playing and the singing of Michael Ray, a member since 1978.
The band had that feeling of looseness and fun, but was very tight when it needed to be. There was a huge amount of variety about the music and this plus the fact it changes all the time explains, I think, why they were so popular with what didn’t really seem like a jazz audience. They never got stuck in one particular groove for too long.
It’s fantastic that the band is still going and that Marshall Allen at the age of 89 is still taking it forward creating and arranging new material. The five nights at Cafe Oto have been completely sold out for some time, so let’s hope they come back next year and somehow we get them back to Birmingham.
Tony Dudley-Evans is Jazz Adviser to Jazzlines at Town Hall Symphony Hall and Programme Adviser to Cheltenham Jazz Festival.
Categories: Live review