Photo courtesy of SF Jazz Center

Close Encounters of the 4th Kind with the Sun Ra Arkestra in San Francisco

Allen leads the Arkestra in building a steady groove with layers of rich horn melodies over a tribal beat, with a torchy female vocal about those feisty angels and demons on the cosmic plane.
Sun Ra Arkestra

93-year-old saxman Marshall Allen continues to lead the Sun Ra Arkestra into the future

Few bands can survive their founder leaving the Earth and continuing to thrive, while both honoring the departed and pushing the music forward. The Sun Ra Arkestra is one of these ultra-rare musical entities. The avant-garde space jazz big band lost their founder and spiritual leader when Sun Ra passed on from the Earthly plane in 1993 at age 80. But the spiritual power of the band’s music called for more, and so it was that long-time band saxophonist Marshall Allen would soon take the helm of the Arkestra to guide the group forward into the 21st century.

Now having experienced 93 solar returns himself, Allen is a heroic testament to the spiritually rejuvenating power of this music that goes beyond standard jazz to incorporate elements of myth, ritual, Afro-psychedelia, and futurism. There’s no other band quite like the Sun Ra Arkestra, as displayed in the early ‘70s film Space Is the Place, where Ra starred as himself in the role of a jazz master from Saturn who travels in a spaceship propelled by the power of his music. He took on bad guys from the FBI, NASA, and other supernatural villains in between concert performances because he wasn’t just on a musical mission, he was out to help save humanity’s soul with spiritual enlightenment about a better way of life.

“With music, he would reach across the border of reality with myth; with music, he could build a bridge to another dimension, to something better; dance halls, clubs, and theaters could be turned into sacred shrines, the sites of dramas and rituals. And though people would be drawn to hear the music, it was they who would become the instrument on which it would resonate, on which he would create the sound of silhouettes… the images and forecasts of tomorrow… all of it disguised as jazz,” writes author John F. Szwed in his 1997 biography Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra .

In summing up Ra’s legacy, Szwed goes on to write, “Music could provide a metaphysical experience through which one could enter the sublime, and come to know the cosmos. He understood music to be a universal language, and something akin to religion. Music could convey more than feelings about phenomena; it could express its essence, and thus could disclose secrets of nature not available to reason, secrets which reveal the true nature of the world.” If that sounds similar to the semi-shamanic experience of a Grateful Dead or Phish show, it should come as no surprise that Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio recruited Marshall Allen and other Arkestra members to play in his 1996 free jazz project Surrender to the Air.

The chance to engage in such a metaphysical musical experience generates a buzz of anticipation as fans fill the SF Jazz Center on this Friday evening for what is the second show of a four-night stand. When the band hits the stage, the ensemble is adorned in their classic regalia of colorful, shiny outfits that blend a futuristic space age vibe with a tribal archaic revival. There are at least a dozen band members, with multiple percussionists, guitar, bass and a female vocalist accompanying the horn section and keyboards. A dissonant voice announces an arrival: “People of Earth, prepare!” The band cranks up their instruments and begin to conjure an otherworldly sound.

The uninitiated who have attended out of curiosity are tested early on as Allen leads the group through a wildly dissonant free jazz space jam that pushes the boundaries of Earthly harmonics. Such freeform jams are a longtime hall mark of the Arkestra, which can make sorting through their hundreds of recordings a tall task for those seeking more traditional jazz stylings. But there’s a method to the madness here as Allen acts as the conductor, engaging each band member to help reel in the jam and bring it back down to terra firma for a big finish. The set then mostly takes on a more harmonically pleasing sound in the traditional big band mode, yet still featuring eclectic sonic landscapes and some great improv.

The first set goes by in a dazzling flash, leaving some realizing they should have had some dinner first. But the SF Jazz Center features a cocktail lounge with a full kitchen where hungry travelers of the interstellar low ways can still grab a bite and a craft beer at halftime. The second set moves to a higher level of metaphysics and musicality as the Arkestra opens with the classic “Interplanetary Music”. Multiple members sing of “Interplanetary harmonies” to kick off an extended jam that features an array of horn solos over a blend of electric piano and polyrhythms that light up the evening. The space journey continues with “Neptune”, as the female vocalist sings, “Have you heard the latest news from Neptune?” It’s a bit more of a low-key jazz tune, save for the dissonant sonic blasts of sax and trumpet that assure this is no standard number. A funky piano part kicks off the traditional jazz classic “Big John’s Special”, and when the swinging horn section kicks in, it sounds a lot like the band from the Mos Eisley Cantina on Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine.

Another uplifting jazzy jam finds the vocalists imploring the audience, “Free your mind, be yourself, watch your soul shine…” Here several of the horn players move out into the crowd in a New Orleans style second line procession, raising the festive atmosphere yet another notch. But they don’t just explore the pit area, they also come down the stairs from the second level, stopping to play at different locations to give some audience members personal solos for uplifting vibrational healings. Legendary UFOlogist Jacques Vallee built off the “close encounters” scale of his mentor J. Allen Hynek by suggesting that a CE4 would describe “cases when witnesses experienced a transformation of their sense of reality” (as opposed to a CE3, which is an encounter where occupants of a UFO are merely present.) The entire show is akin to a CE4, especially these encounters with band members that occur up close and personal.

The Arkestra brings the show to a climactic conclusion by announcing the introduction of a classic Sun Ra composition, “Angels and Demons at Play”. Allen leads the Arkestra in building a steady groove with layers of rich melodies over a tribal beat, with a torchy female vocal about those feisty angels and demons on the cosmic plane. Allen conjures some otherworldly sax tones here, helping paint a majestic sonic landscape that dazzles the senses.

In the end, it’s like suddenly being returned to Earth after an adventurous cosmic voyage on the Arkestra’s sonic spaceship. Allen invites attendees to return the next night because “tomorrow will be all different”, the hallmark of any improvisational band worth its salt. The Sun Ra Arkestra remains one of the longest-running and most influential acts in music history, a testament to how the immense power of music with spiritual intention can outlive even those who create it.