Marshall Allen - director, as, fl
It is one of the greatest and most mysterious avant-garde jazz phenomena that influenced not only the flagmen of avant-garde, but also spiritual leaders and intellectuals of that epoch.
Sun Ra, the inspirer and long-time leader of “Sun Ra Arkestra”, left this planet in 1993. For the next two years the “Arkestra” was led by John Gilmore, the group’s long-time saxophonist. After he passed away in 1995, the group has performed under the direction of Marshall Allen as musical director – one of the most idiosyncratic post-war saxophonists who has worked with the “Arkestra” for six decades.
In spring 2019, Marshall Allen turned 95. In April, the “Sun Ra Arkestra” launched a yearlong European tour honouring the artistic director’s 95th anniversary and the 105th anniversary of Sun Ra’s arrival on this Planet Earth.
“My story is mystery”, said Sun Ra, the great mystic. His real name was Herman Poole Blount. He was born in 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama. Later he left Alabama for Chicago and Chicago for Saturn and admitted that he never quite understood how he got to Planet Earth in the first place.
The name “Ra”, the Egyptian god of the sun, brought him closer to the cosmos. He deliberately chose it as his stage name. “Arkestra” has “ra” at the beginning and the end. In the middle there is “kest”, which means “sun’s gleam” in Sanskrit.
Sun Ra said and wrote many strange things. The easy and mindless reaction would be to label him “weird”, but that would be too simple. A keyboard improviser of great originality and the leader of this legendary group was passionately engaged in and by his creative mythology and what he really meant could only be articulated in his music. For his colleagues Ra was an inspiring teacher and he considered it to be one of his missions on Earth.
As a child he would spend all his time playing the piano and composing. He also was as obsessed with books. Ra read the ancient texts of Egyptians and Africans and Greeks, studied the origins of language. He knew Biblical scripture better than any preacher; read Kabbalah concepts and nearly every book on mystical and occult things printed in the English language.
Theosophy, relativity, mathematics, physics, history, music, magic, science fiction, Egyptology, technology – all were keys to a unified existence. But he understood how puny knowledge is in the face of the unknown. “A lot of things that men do…come from somewhere else,” Sun Ra said, “they are inspired by something that is not of this planet.”
And jazz was the music of elsewhere. It was the instrument of a mystical experience, which he used to get people awakened from a stupor of slumber. Sun Ra abolished outworn ideas and habits as well as sleep from his life just as he had come to do without the distraction of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and women.
“Sun Ra Arkestra” musicians lived together like a commune, worked together, thought together, breathed music together. Sun Ra often chose musicians who were more intuitive than knowledgeable.
Dozens of musicians passed through Sun Ra’s bands over the years. Some stayed with him for decades, while others played on only a few recordings or performances. Sun Ra was personally responsible for the vast majority of the constant changes in the group’s line-up. He did not confront any musician whose performance he was unsatisfied with. Instead, he would simply gather the entire “Arkestra” minus the offending musicians and skip the town leaving the fired musicians stranded.
The group’s life underwent several substantial changes. On that basis, Sun Ra’s music can be roughly divided into three phases – in 1945–1961 he resided in Chicago, up until 1968 the “Arkestra” worked in New York. In 1968, Sun Ra bought a building for “Arkestra” in Philadelphia.
In his early period Sun Ra was fascinated with boogie woogie and blues, his music sometimes showcased refined touch of pianists Count Basie, Ahmad Jamal, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor, as well as influences of bebop, hard bop and modal jazz. He often cited Chopin, Rachmaninov, Schoenberg and Shostakovich, his favourite composers for piano. According to music critics and historians, some of his compositions from the ‘50s can be attributed to the golden treasury of his legacy.
After the move to New York, Sun Ra and company plunged headlong into the experimentalism. The music was often extremely loud and the “Arkestra” grew to include multiple drummers and percussionists. Recordings and live performances often featured passages of unusual instrumental combinations and passages of collective playing that incorporated free improvisation. It was often difficult to tell where composition ended and improvisation began. Sun Ra did not believe his work could be classified as “free music” – he claimed that he has to make sure that every note, every nuance is correct.
During the Philadelphia era Sun Ra and the “Arkestra” settled down into a relatively conventional sound, often incorporating standards, although their records and concerts were still highly eclectic and energetic.
Sun Ra is best known as a creator of “cosmic jazz”, one of the most radical jazz pioneers. His electronic keyboards produced unheard of sounds. Many of Sun Ra’s innovations remain important and groundbreaking. He was one of the first jazz leaders to use two double basses, to employ the electric bass, to use extensive percussion, and to pioneer solo and group free form improvisations. His performances always bore surprises.
“Sun Ra Arkestra” is a remarkable example of total art (Gesmtkunstwerk). It encompasses music, theatre, dance, philosophy, the past and future. The musicians followed Sun Ra’s style wearing Egyptian headdresses, African robes and Mardi Gras beads.
According to Ra, the Afro-Americans have always been a mysterious community with their own music, their own language and their own rituals. They could create a futurist Utopia, perhaps on a planet other than Earth, which seems to be unbearably steeped in chaos and confusion.
He imagined living in the eternal now, on the other side of time, but combined inspiration with discipline and precision (the imperative of cosmos and nature) in his music. Even the most talented instrumentalists felt baffled for months before they could hear music in the written notes. Sun Ra was able to spread a palette of styles in one composition – from retro swing to cosmic sounds.
“All of my compositions are meant to depict happiness, pleasure and beauty”, he commented on his music, “happiness, as well as pleasure and beauty have many degrees of existence; my aim is to express these degrees in sounds, which can be understood by the entire world.”
Starting with concerts in France, Germany and the United Kingdom in 1970, the “Sun Ra Arkestra” began to tour internationally. Sun Ra continued playing in Europe to nearly the end of his life; toured Egypt three times.
After the leader passed away, the group continued touring. In 2004, it appeared in Ustuu-Huree live music festival in Tuva, southern Siberia. In 2008, presented Sun Ra legacy in seven days of concerts at the interdisciplinary festival ZXZW in the Netherlands.
In 2009, the collective gave a concert at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia as part of the Sun Ra Exhibition focusing on the links between the “Arkestra” and contemporary art. In 2011, the group made its Australian debut at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival and the MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) in Tasmania.
Marshall Allen graduated from the Paris Conservatoire of Music. In 1958, he joined the “Sun Ra Arkestra”’s formidable reed section. Marshall lived, rehearsed, toured and recorded with Sun Ra almost exclusively for much of Sun Ra’s musical career. As a member of the “Arkestra” he pioneered the free jazz movement. Very few people were so close to Sun Ra.
His instruments (in addition to alto saxophone, he plays flute, oboe and other wind instruments) are featured on over 200 Sun Ra recordings.
He also has collaborated with Art Simmons, Don Byas, James Moody, Paul Blay, “Medeski, Martin & Wood”, “Phish”, “Sonic Youth” and “Digable Planets”. In recent years, in New York he worked in various projects with bassist Henry Grimes, interpreted Sun Ra’s legacy with “Innerzone Orchestra”.
As a Sun Ra heir, he has been committed to the study, research and development of Sun Ra’s musical precepts for 25 years. Allen has launched the “Sun Ra Arkestra” into a dimension beyond that of mere “ghost” band by writing fresh arrangements of Sun Ra’s music, as well as compositing new music for the “Arkestra”. He has recorded two albums as leader of the “Sun Ra Arkestra”.
However, none of their many recordings quite captures the live fury of this amazing ensemble.