The Summer Sessions concert series is in effect at the SFJazz Center, and one of the most anticipated events of the season arrives here on the third weekend of July, with the Sun Ra Arkestra materializing for a four-night residency. The long-running space jazz ensemble has made an indelible mark on not just the jazz world but also on the rock improv scene and larger counterculture with their unique blend of musical adventures and philosophical explorations over the decades.
Legendary founder Sun Ra – who famously claimed to be from the planet Saturn – led the Sun Ra Arkestra from the 1950s until his departure from Planet Earth in 1993. The surviving members have carried the cosmic torch forward ever since, with renowned saxman Marshall Allen serving as band leader since 1995. Allen celebrated his 99th birthday this past May and was seemingly still going strong, so there was a bit of a letdown when it was recently made known that he would no longer go on tour and only gig in his longtime home base of Philadelphia. But considering how vibrant the band have remained in the three decades since Sun Ra’s departure, there’s little doubt that the Sun Ra Arkestra will continue to thrive in their next era.
“This is the sound of silhouettes, images, and forecasts of tomorrow disguised as jazz,” read a recent tweet from the @SunRaUniverse account, alluding to the band’s 1958 classic Jazz in Silhouette (incidentally the album on which Marshall Allen first joined the band.) The idea of using music as a window into the future has long been a key concept in the Arkestra’s tone science, with sonic landscapes and improvisations ahead of their time. Allen continued to lead the Sun Ra Arkestra not just as a bandleader but also in evangelizing for Sun Ra’s message of using music to help catalyze a more enlightened world for a better tomorrow.
Allen’s absence makes us here at PopMatters reflect back on how blessed we were to chat with the maestro back in 2019, in advance of the Arkestra’s appearance at SFJazz four years ago. This gave us an even greater appreciation for the band’s 2020 double album, Swirling, which mixed some new material with modern remakes of the classics to garner the group’s first-ever Grammy nomination (in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album category).
“No matter how bleak or troublesome or turbulent the times are, as long as people have love in their hearts if they want a better world, there can be a better world,” saxophonist and now current bandleader Knoel Scott told the Grammy Recording Academy in a 2020 interview, when asked about the message of the Swirling album. Scott has served in the ranks of the Arkestra for more than 40 years himself and even has a new solo album out with 2023’s Celestial (also featuring Marshall Allen), so he’s well-suited to take the Captain’s chair.
The Sun Ra Arkestra have continued to mix futuristic space jazz odysseys with traditional old-school swing music that was always part of their foundation. Hence this residency is advertised to feature both styles. The first two nights on Thursday and Friday are billed as “The Exploratory Side of Sun Ra – an Adventure into Outer Space”, while the third and fourth nights on Saturday and Sunday are billed as “The Big Band Swing of Sun Ra – Swinging with Sunny”.
When the Sun Ra Arkestra hit the stage on Friday night, and frontwoman Tara Middleton sings “Living in the Space Age”, it’s as if the auditorium has suddenly been transported to a higher dimension. Middleton sings out, asking questions like, “Are you the color of sound? Are you the color of thought?” The group’s celestial philosophy comes right into play as the music is framed as more than just notes, chords, and rhythms but also as a portal into a higher realm of enlightenment.
Sun Ra Arkestra’s three-person percussion section dazzles right from the start as they will all evening, laying down dynamic polyrhythms that conjure both ancient tribal grooves as well as futuristic jazzy jams. Middleton soon shifts into singing the group’s classic “Space Is the Place”, while the Sun Ra Arkestra continues with the same propulsive groove. Then there’s the eight-person horn section, bass, cello, and of course, a keyboardist (Sun Ra’s instrument.) The band seem like they could be primed for a hot night on the bandstand at a venue like the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine or Quark’s Bar on the Deep Space 9 space station.
The “Space Is the Place” jam soon picks up steam and veers into a frenetic free jazz zone with the trumpet players delivering wild solos as the groove continues to intensify, starting to sound like a “Maze” jam from Vermont tone scientists Phish (one of many modern rock bands that have cited the Sun Ra Arkestra as a significant influence). When the jam ends and the band returns from space to San Francisco, they’re greeted with a big round of applause.
The ultra classic “Angels and Demons at Play” provides another stellar sonic journey, with the song’s signature bass line instantly propelling an infectious groove, augmented by all manner of cosmic bells and whistles from the rest of the ensemble. The polyrhythms almost feel like a drum circle in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead show at the Oakland Coliseum circa 1993, yet the rhythms go to an interdimensional level. Charismatic keyboardist Farid Abdul-Bari Barron is an x-factor here, smashing dissonant chords to help fire the warp drive. It’s a gloriously shimmering jam, with the second row of horn players going down to the floor for their closing solos.
“We Travel the Spaceways” is introduced as “one of Sun Ra’s favorites”, and Middleton leads a harmony of vocals here, guiding the Arkestra “from planet to planet” on more of a classic jazz vibe with the horns and piano, yet still propelled to the stars by the dynamic percussion section. The set keeps building as if each song is part of a larger sonic tapestry. “Enlightenment” is another highlight, with Sun Ra Arkestra singing of inviting listeners into their space world and the “magic light of tomorrow” before veering into a groovier “It don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing” jam.
“Queer Notions” is billed as a tune that went from Fletcher Henderson to a Sun Ra arrangement, then re-arranged by Marshall Allen for a toe-tapping number. The swinging exploration finds its way back into “We Travel the Spaceways” for another big jam at the end that features a classic call-and-response section that gets the audience clapping and singing as the band exits the stage, which continues until the band returns similar to the way the Grateful Dead long utilized “Not Fade Away”. It’s been an uplifting Friday evening with the Sun Ra Arkestra, exemplified by how the one hour and 45-minute set feels like it’s gone by in a flash.
Saturday and Sunday – “The Big Band Swing of Sun Ra – Swinging with Sunny”
As the residency moves to night three, attendees are expecting fewer space jams and more swing. Yet each show still features some of both, with the Sun Ra Arkestra opening on Saturday with one of their all-time space classics, “Door of the Cosmos”. Farid Abdul-Bari Barron conjures a big piano reverb here that truly seems to open a portal to the stars, and the Arkestra follow, with Middleton leading a chorus singing, “Love and light, interested me so, that I dared to knock on the door of the cosmos…” It’s one of Sun Ra Arkestra’s grooviest numbers, and the horn section goes large on the jam, as it starts to feel like sheets of sound are raining down from the cosmos, John Coltrane style. It’s a great way to set the tone for a show that will feature more of the big band swing, but all still in service to the pursuit of cosmic enlightenment.
The title track from the Swirling album is a highlight, introduced as having been penned by ”the maestro Marshall Allen and Tara Middleton”. It’s a number that has a big band style, yet with freaky sonic enhancements that make it a signature Sun Ra Arkestra type of tune. Middleton stars as well, singing of how “Moonlight is falling, Space dreams are calling, We’re ready as I’ve ever been To go sailing, Jupiter’s winds wait for me, Swirling a cosmic breeze…”
The percussion section is more laid back here in the big band show than in Friday’s space show, but they still get it going here and there, and when they do, it adds an extra dimension to the Arkestra that most jazz ensembles can’t reach. “Somebody Else’s World” is such a moment, coming out of a hot jam but with the drums still propelling a big groove behind Middleton’s vocals. “We Travel the Spaceways” is utilized to end the set again, a natural closer with how the group gets the audience involved.
Sunday’s show winds up featuring some of the same songs, but not necessarily played the same way. “Somebody Else’s World” pops up again early on, but with driving hypnotic polyrhythms. Is there a tease on “The Lady With the Golden Stockings”? The Sun Ra Arkestra will get into some free jazz spaces where band members can toss in different melodies, which opens up an array of opportunities for improv. A retro big band jam leads into a groovy bluesy number before “Swirling” is introduced again. One of the band members assures the audience that Marshall Allen is okay, back in Philly with his girlfriend.
“We Travel the Spaceways” returns like a spaceship circling the solar system, yet still jamming in a different direction as it includes teases into both “Space Is the Place” and the classic “Outer Spaceways Inc.” Middleton conjures late great predecessor June Tyson, “the Saturnian Queen of the Sun Ra Arkestra”, as she sings out, “If you find Earth boring, just the same old same thing, then sign up for Outer Space Incorporated…” With the horns and percussionists rallying behind her, Middleton acts as a space queen recruiting Earthlings for an adventure into the cosmos with the band. This is what a Sun Ra Arkestra show promises on any given evening – a chance to leave the often dreary Earth blues behind and board a spaceship ride into the cosmos with these ever-intrepid sonic adventurers.