Sun Ra Arkestra Ought To Play Your Town

DSCN3230Seriously, this band should be working as much as they can stand. Their San Francisco concert, at the beginning of August, was amazing.

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.

DSCN3233Marshall 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.

The band wandered the crowd, then returned to the stage with the house lights up, encouraging everyone to dance.
The band wandered the crowd, then returned to the stage with the house lights up, encouraging everyone to dance.

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.

It was quite a line outside the theater. A sellout was never in doubt.
At its heart, the Arkestra is a traditional big band, with the regimen of standing up during solos.
sfSound opened with two half-hour pieces — well executed, but a very different mood.
Hans Grusel’s Krankenkabinet opened the evening with oddball electronic noise/song in the fine tradition of Caroliner Rainbow.

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