Sun Ra Arkestra & Marshall Allen ‘Babylon Live’ Ltd Edition CD + DVD (In and Out) 4/5

sun-ra-arkestraThe Cosmological explorations of Sun Ra are the thing of legend, and while the leader himself has departed for yet other stratospheres hitherto unknown to mankind, his legacy lives on in the very capable hands of musical director Marshall Allen. This latest incarnation is a most recent one since it dates from May 2014 and a live concert in Istanbul at the excellent Club Babylon founded by two Turkish jazz enthusiasts, and looking like some kind of underground stoned cavern if the centre camera view is anything to go by. The familiar tones of the evergreen ‘Astro Black’ start off proceedings and this is a classic Sun Ra composition that is the title track of a long sought after album and the eleven piece orchestra certainly do it justice. This in turn segues neatly into ‘Ra #2’ which is a cacophony of brass, keyboards and percussion, yet it is most definitely musical chaos of the coherent variety and both collective brass riffs and individual horns impress here.
Marshall Allen has wisely stuck with the overall Arkestra sound, but one interesting difference is in the new keyboardist, Farid Barron, who gently updates the Sun Ra groove on electric piano (something Sun Ra himself did use, but without some of the more modern phrasings deployed by Barron) without ever straying too far from the source. Sun Ra would surely have approved of this. As with the founding member’s output as a whole, it is wildly eclectic and takes in swing jazz influences from his early tenure with the Fletcher Henderson band, as well as progressive and freer influences that even Charles Mingus would have judged innovative. Thus one finds a take on the standard, ‘Stardust’, with its Ellingtonesque horns and vocal intro cheek by jowl with the percussion led ‘Care Free #2’ which comes across as a driving Afro-Latin inspired number complete with repeated collective horns and some synthesizer sound effects for some welcome intergalactic intervention.
On occasion, the extended freer pieces could be truncated slightly for this writer’s ears, but that is amply compensated for elsewhere and the jazz tradition is respected on a piece such as ‘Saturn’ with some old-school piano in the solo intro from Farrid Barron and the bop inflections of the band are illustrated both in the big band arrangements and in the warm tenor saxophone solo by Knoel Scott. The DVD features three bonus numbers not included on the CD and gives a wonderful flavour of what the Arkestra are like in performance. They literally cover the whole of a somewhat wide stage and are at all times entertaining, especially on pierces such as ‘Unmask the batman’, and this is a fine way to begin to discover the inner self to the Arkestra, though only a fool would claim to be able to unmask the band sound in its full complexity.

Adhering to the Sun Ra philosophy of life is not compulsory, but this package make for a compulsive listening and viewing experience. Neophytes and aficionados alike will find much to treasure here. Terrific photos of band past and present in the luxurious inner sleeve and that includes the grand master himself striking a suitably cosmic pose in the middle of a busy Istanbul street during the Arkestra’s first trip there in 1990.

Tim Stenhouse