When sitting down to carefully consider what actually constitutes the distant, the disorientating, and indeed the far out, there can be few musical projects that fit the bill as well as the Sun Ra Arkestra.
Although the band’s iconic leader died in 1993, the Arkestra – now fronted by Ra’s most trusted saxophonist Marshall Allen – very much lives on. They claim to genuinely channel the spirit of Sun Ra when playing live, a factor that may well be scoffed at by many, but makes for an even more otherworldly experience when watching them in their renewed guise.
Last night the Arkestra came to Manchester to perform at the iconic Band On the Wall, a venue renowned for showcasing boundary-pushing sounds on an almost nightly basis.
With 12 of them on stage together at any one time, a bustling entourage of friends and tour buddies, and the added showtime persona of the band’s gleaming robes and headdresses, it is hard to tell who is actually a member of the band and who isn’t as they casually mingle with fans before the gig.
Although the feelings evoked by the Arkestra lyrically are often those of alienation, the reality in Manchester couldn’t be further from the truth, with the audience getting chance to get closer to the evening’s performers than would be the case with any other act of their stature.
Eventually this means they arrive on stage more than half an hour late, but for those who have met their heroes this is no doubt a very happy scenario indeed. They are greeted by an applause that seems to signal baited anticipation from an audience who are excited, yet slightly unsure about the prospect that lies ahead.
The band introduce themselves, tell the crowd a bit about Allen – who himself celebrated his 90th birthday in May – and get toes tapping with show-jazz theme tune ‘Interplanetary Music’. The opener is, however, just the first glimpse of a gateway that leads to a journey of many more expansive sounds.
The real beauty of Sun Ra’s music was its vibrancy. What at times feels like it is anchored on a base of early 20th century jazz actually can be attached to no one genre at all. Within seconds, woozy, soundclash interludes evolve into accessible swing and danceable funk, before seamlessly disappearing back into a world of the avant garde. There are few other acts who blur these lines as effectively.
There is appreciation from the audience throughout, but the disjointed conclusion of many of the Arkestra’s number cause them to misplace their applause – a factor that only adds to the fluidity of the occasion.
Despite this free-forming surface though, Ra himself always maintained that the band’s music was constructed meticulously, efficiently and with great precision. Numerous band members can tonight be seen looking ever-so slightly irate when offering direction to the sound engineers.
The overall result is a set that peaks, troughs and meanders in a way that is still truly enthralling today. Allen’s commitment to rearranging some of Ra’s classics for the current lineup and assimilating a revolving door of covers into the set has worked a treat over the last few decades, meaning whoever takes on the mantle when it is his turn to pass will no doubt have a huge task on their hands to hold the whole thing together.
The decoration of the venue – with a blank stage backdrop and relatively small performance area – is quite different to some of the more extravagant settings that the Arkestra have played in over the years.
In fact, at times, the ensemble look a little cramped. But the same can’t be said for the evening’s closer, when the Arkestra’s brass quartet step off the stage and enter the crowd (still playing throughout), snaking between the sold out audience and once again breaking down the dividing line between musician and fan.
The end of the set is met with euphoria from the vast majority of the venue. Some leave looking like they have no idea what they just witnessed, whereas others are safe in the knowledge they have been in the company of space-jazz legends. Eliciting a single response would be far too middle-of-the-road for the Arkestra.