SUN RA ARKESTRA UNDER THE DIRECTION OF MARSHALL ALLEN-BABYLON LIVE.

SUN RA ARKESTRA UNDER THE DIRECTION OF MARSHALL ALLEN-BABYLON LIVE.

2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of most enigmatic and innovative musicians in the history of music, Sun Ra. The man that many referred to as Mr. Mystery has proved to be one of the most important figures in jazz. Constantly, Sun Ra’s pushed musical boundaries. Sun Ra was never content to stand still musically. Similarly, he was always striving to reinvent his music. That was the case throughout his long and illustrious career.

Accompanied by his Arkestra, that sometimes numbered thirty musicians, the original version of a song was merely the starting point. What it became, was anyone’s guess? Under Sun Ra’s guidance the Arkestra set out to innovate. Their mission was to reinvent a track, and take it in the most unexpected direction. It was a case of expect the unexpected. No wonder.

Sun Ra combined Egyptian history and space-age cosmic philosophy with freeform jazz. This innovative fusion transformed the career of the man born Herman Poole Blount. He was born on 22nd May 1914, and became a giant of jazz. 

Herman Poole Blount was also a cosmic philosopher, composer, bandleader, musician, writer and poet. However, it was music that Sun Ra became famous for. Becoming one of the most innovative musicians in the history of jazz didn’t come easily.

Sun Ra was a perfectionist and relentless taskmaster. He brought together some of most talented, inventive and adventurous musicians he could find. They became his Arkestra. After that, Sun Ra’s started transforming them into one of jazz music’s legendary orchestras. This took time, patience and dedication. 

Having honed their sound, Sun Ra took his band on the road. That’s where they developed and refined their unique chemistry. Eventually, Sun Ra and His Arkestra made their recording debut. Their debut album was 1956s Jazz by Sun Ra. This was the first of over a hundred studio and live albums Sun Ra and His Arkestra recorded. It’s fair to say that Sun Ra was one of the most prolific recording artists ever.

So when Marshall Allen decided to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Sun Ra’s birth by taking the Sun Ra Arkestra on the road, choosing the setlist can’t have been easy. Literally, Marshall Allen was spoiled for choice. However, when the Sun Ra Arkestra reached the Babylon Club, Istanbul on 21st May 2014, the concert was recorded. Eight of the eleven tracks feature on Babylon Live which was recorded by the Sun Ra Arkestra Under The Direction Of Marshall Allen. It was recently released on the German label, In and Out Records. 

For Babylon Live Marshall Allen chose eight tracks. Seven were penned by Sun Ra. The other was a cover of Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish’s Stardust. These eight tracks are brought to life by the hugely talented Sun Ra Arkestra.

Back when the Sun Ra Arkestra were in their prime, Sun Ra hit the road with thirty musicians. For last year’s tour, their number was somewhat reduced. However, in full flow, they still packed a potent punch. That was the case on 21st May 2015, at the Babylon Club in Istanbul, Turkey. That’s where the latest lineup of the Sun Ra Arkestra took to the stage, and paid homage to its founder and a giant of jazz. Fittingly, the Sun Ra Arkestra was under the guidance of one of Sun Ra’s closest friends, Marshall Allen.

Directing the Sun Ra Arkestra was alto saxophonist Marshall Allen who also added vocals. He was joined by violinist and vocalist Tara Middleton. The rhythm section features drummer Wayne Anthony Smith, bassist Tyler Mitchell and guitarist Dave Hotep. They’re joined by pianist Farid Barron, percussionist Elson Nascimento and Stanley Morgan on congas and percussion. In the horn section are vocalist and alto saxophonist Knoel Scott, trumpeter Cecil Brooks, trombonist Dave Davis, tenor saxophonist James Stewart, baritone saxophonist Danny Ray Thompson and Vincent Chauncey on flugelhorn. This fourteen piece version of the Sun Ra Arkestra worked their way through eight tracks, taking them in the most unexpected directions.

Opening Babylon Live is Astro Black, which originally, was Sun Ra’s proclamation of spiritual emancipation. It opens with a congas and percussion combining urgently. They set the scene for vocalist Tara Middleton. As she delivers a powerful, but heartfelt vocal, joyously, Marshall Allen answers her call. A slow moody bass meanders along. Above the arrangement, the frantic percussion provides a backdrop for Tara Middleton’s vocal powerhouse, as the Sun Ra Arkestra whet your appetite.

On Ra # 2, whose origins are rehearsal tapes discovered by Marshall Allen, the Sun Ra Arkestra threaten to cut loose. That’s the case from the get-go. Pounding drums create a 4/4 beat. Meanwhile, flourishes of piano are joined by the bass and bursts of scorching horns. They play in a bar in 4/4 time, before switching to 5/4. By then, stabs of searing, blistering kick loose. They’re at the heart of everything that’s good, combining elements of avant-garde, free jazz, funk and jazz. Pianist Farid Barron joins the fun. So do the rest of the band. Drummer Wayne Anthony Smith pounds the skins, as if encouraging the Sun Ra Arkestra to greater heights. However, they don’t need any encouragement. Nobody does it better than  the Sun Ra Arkestra in full flight. It’s a joy to behold. Especially, as they kick loose. Their late founder and the great cosmic philosopher Sun Ra would be proud of the latest incarnation of his Arkestra.

Saturn is one of Sun Ra’s classic tracks. This time around, the Sun Ra Arkestra play it straight. There’s no no heading off at a tangent. However, this allows certain members of the Sun Ra Arkestra to enjoy their moment in the sun. This includes pianist James Stuart. He gets the ball rolling, laying down a solo before dramatic bursts of horns enter. Together, they produce a wall of sound. It’s impressive. The Sun Ra Arkestra play as one, swinging their way through Saturn. That’s until individual members get the opportunity to express themselves on the solos. Vincent Chauncey on flugelhorn and Knoel Scott on alto saxophone play starring roles. So does the veteran bassist Tyler Mitchell and pianist Farid Barron producing stunning, show stealing performances. Then when one thinks things can’t get any better, Marshall Allen, whose ninety years old, unleashes a stunning improvised solo. Despite his age, he hasn’t lost his magic touch, and steals the show.

The unmistakable sound of Danny Ray Thompson’s baritone saxophone opens Discipline 27B. He plays slowly and deliberately. Maybe even dramatically. Soon, the rhythm section, piano and  horn sections combine, creating a hypnotic, mesmeric arrangement. Pianist Farid Barron  ploughs his own furrow, playing above the arrangement. However, as the horns howl, lead trumpeter Cecil Brooks steps out of the shadows, and blows a blistering, fluttering solo. Meanwhile, Farid Barron pounds his piano. He Dave Hotep and Marshall Allen prove a potent partnership as they improvise, feeding off each other and reaching new heights musically.

Stardust might seem like unlikely track for the Sun Ra Arkestra to cover. However, they’re a hugely versatile Arkestra, who are just as happy playing what’s a quite beautiful version of an old classic. Pianist Farid Barron takes the lead, setting the scene for Tara Middleton’s hauntingly, beautiful, heartfelt vocal. Soon, the alto saxophone and enters. It’s accompanied by the trum pet and walking bass. Instantly, it’s like being transported to a smokey jazz club in the thirties, as the Sun Ra Arkestra become a big band. However, Farid Barron isn’t content to play it straight. He unleashes flamboyant flourishes as the horns unite. While Tara’s vocal is at the heart of the song’s success, so are the solos from the alto saxophone and the trumpet. Together they play their part in a twelve minute, epic cover of Stardust.

A punchy baritone saxophone is joined by percussion and congas as Carefree #2 unfolds. They’re joined by the horns. They rasp, growl and bray. The result is a melodic, joyous and occasionally mesmeric groove. Marshall Allen on his trusty EVI adds space age beeps and squeaks. It’s as if he’s trying to contact another galaxy. This is the signal for the Sun Ra Arkestra to play with an increased urgency. Stabs of piano, thunderous drums and a myriad of percussion join braying, blistering horns. As musical adventures go, this is one you’ll want to undertake often, as the Sun Ra Arkestra take you on an innovative, intergalactic journey par excellence.

Dancing Shadows is another epic track, lasting over eleven minutes. Farid Barron adds cinematic, then free jazz piano. Whoops and hollers signal the arrival of the Sun Ra Arkestra. As drums rumble, horns blaze and the bass helps drive the arrangement along. Still, at the heart of the arrangement is the piano. That’s until the tenor saxophone takes centre-stage. It competes with the piano for supremacy. While the tenor saxophone is much more melodic, the piano is much more innovative. This seems to encourage the drummer Wayne Anthony Smith and guitarist Dave Hotep. Marshall Allen unleashes his otherworldly, cosmic UVI.  Soon, the Sun Ra Arkestra are in full flight, improvising and pushing musical boundaries. There’s even an excursion in slow, dramatic and moody fusion. Before long, howling, wailing, haunting horns take the arrangement in the direction of otherworldly jazz. It’s the free jazz equivalent of ju ju, as the Sun Ra Arkestra work their musical magic.

Closing Babylon Live is Satellites Are Spinning. It features Tara Middleton on lead vocal. Her call is answered by Marshall Allen and other members of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Behind them, percussion, piano and bass combine. They’re create a sparse, but sprightly arrangement. Soon though, the horns make their presence felt. They wail, howl and bray. Sometimes, they’re punchy and abrupt. Accompanying them, are drums, percussion and piano. Tara’s vocal has a hypnotic, hopeful sound. It draws the listener in, as she delvers what’s akin to her mantra: “we sing this song to a great tomorrow, to abolish sorrow.” This proves a fitting way to close Babylon Live, because in 1990, Sun Ra performed Satellites Are Spinning in Babylon in Istanbul, where the album was recorded.

Babylon Live was recorded at the Babylon Club in Istanbul, Turkey on the 21st May 2014. That was always 100 years to the day that Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount. Little did anyone realise that, that day, one of most enigmatic and innovative musicians in the history of music was born.

In later years, Herman Poole Blount adopted his Sun Ra personal. He combined Egyptian history and space-age cosmic philosophy with freeform jazz. Some felt that Sun Ra hid behind his newly adopted personal. Throughout his life, he remained an enigmatic figure. So much so, that  many people referred to Sun Ra as Mr. Mystery. Despite being an enigma, he was one of jazz music’s great innovators. 

Sun Ra’s approach to music was unique. He combined Egyptian history and space-age cosmic philosophy with freeform jazz. Over a career that spanned nearly forty years, Sun Ra and His Arkestra pushed musical boundaries. He was a perfectionist and a relentless taskmaster. Continually, he surrounded himself with some of most talented, inventive and adventurous musicians of their generation. They became the Sun Ra Arkestra. All Sun Ra had to do, was hone the Arkestra’s sound. 

That was easier said than done. Sun Ra was demanding bandleader, one with exacting standards. Second best was no use to Sun Ra. What he was after was an Arkestra who were innovators and musical adventurers. That describes Sun Ra perfectly. He found that in Marshall Allen.

That’s what it’s fitting that it’s Marshall Allen that leads the Sun Ra Arkestra. He took the Sun Ra Arkestra out on tour during 2014. On 21st May 2014, they played at the Babylon Club, in Istanbul, Turkey. That was nearly a hundred years to the day Sun Ra was born. The concert was recorded for posterity, and became Babylon Live, which was recently released by the German label In and Out Records. There’s two versions of Babylon Live available, a single CD version and a double album featuring CD and DVD. The version reviewed her is the single album. It finds the Sun Ra Arkestra paying homage to a musical innovator and giant of jazz, Sun Ra.

He died back in 1983, aged seventy nine. By then, Sun Ra was already one of the most important musicians in the history of jazz. Constantly, Sun Ra pushed musical boundaries. Sun Ra was never content to stand still musically and was always striving to reinvent his music. That was the case throughout his long and illustrious career. 

Now twenty-two years after the death of the great man, Sun Ra’s music is kept alive by the Sun Ra Arkestra Under The Direction Of Marshall Allen on Babylon Live, which is a fitting way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the man born Herman Poole Blount.

SUN RA ARKESTRA UNDER THE DIRECTION OF MARSHALL ALLEN-BABYLON LIVE.

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