Maybe you’ve seen the Arkestra before, so maybe everything I’ll say is old hat to you. But I’ll bet there are tens of thousands of people in situations like mine: Never seen the Arkestra, would check them out for the music, and would be blown away.
The whole setup is classic Arkestra: Group-sung melodies with that 1940s swing vibe; the big-band decorum of standing up for solos; a featured female vocalist and a couple of dancers; and, of course, Disney tunes. “When You Wish Upon a Star” did make an appearance, early on. It was like an obligation fulfilled, leaving the last half of the set to soak in the more cooking, jamming numbers.
Marshall Allen conducted the proceedings and also contributed crazed, off-the-rails solos on saxophone and on his spacey sci-fi electric recorder. His sax would intentionally spasm and shred over the band’s steady rhythms and reverent melodies, like a Jackson Pollack frame around a gorgeous old black-and-white movie.
Many members of the ensemble are older, so there was a lot of shuffling of feet as they came on stage, but the music was tightly delivered. Some younger members are making their mark with the band as well — especially pianist Farid Abdul-Bari Barron, who was fast, fluid, and astounding. A few different songs showcased him.
Toward the end, one of the older saxophonists broke to the front of the stage and started doing cartwheels and flips. My first reaction was, “Aw, man, he’s drunk and he’s gonna hurt himself” — but as he kept going, it became apparent this guy can do cartwheels and flips. Real acrobatics, performed with strength and vigor. Again, maybe everybody else knew this about the Arkestra, but I didn’t. It was a huge surprise, and a random little bonus.
They deserved a theater better than the old Victoria, too. I can see why people would love the old place, as it hearkens back to an early 20th-century time when the cinema meant so much more. But it’s cramped (less legroom than most airlines), and the snack bar isn’t equipped for much more than popcorn and soda — nor is it positioned to handle a long line.
The band is showing its age, of course. The older members are, well, older, including the dancer and vocalist. Their presentation might seem haphazard for television, if that were even an option. But as a jazz big-band, they’re still tight, energetic, and entertaining. All jazz fans talk about the need to see the “old cats” while they’re still around. Don’t leave the Arkestra off that list.