Gig review: Sun Ra Arkestra at Belgrave Music Hall, Leeds

Sun Ra claimed to derive from Saturn, and denied any excess links to Planet Earth, even if documentation suggests the legendary bandleader, composer and pianist born Herman Blount was in fact an earthling from Alabama.

Monday, 6th May 2019, 7:49 pm
Updated Monday, 6th May 2019, 7:56 pm
Sun Ra Arkestra at Belgrave Music Hall, Leeds. Picture: Ross McGibbon

Fittingly, there are many occasions when the epic, sprawling and invigorating workouts dished out by the Sun Ra Arkestra (the expansive ensemble dedicated to promoting the intergalactic vision of their former leader, who passed away in 1993) tonight pack enough to cosmic propulsion and wild, undiluted joy to elevate the enthusiastic audience way past the stratosphere.

Their story is one of endurance, with unbound innovation eventually being rewarded. The group’s space-travelling themes, eccentric mutations of big band jazz and exotic outfits – homespun take on what ancient Egyptians may have sported, had they pursued a career as astronauts – were dismissed as a gimmick and affront to serious jazz during Sun Ra’s creative peak in the 50s and 60s.

Sun Ra Arkestra at Belgrave Music Hall, Leeds. Picture: Ross McGibbon

These days, the band’s Afro-futuristic, defiant positivity and playful experimentation can be detected in the ethos of such modern jazz notables as Kamasi Washington and The Comet Is Coming. In their 70th decade as an active outfit, the Sun Ra Arkestra is now arguably more popular than ever.

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They’re certainly not taking their hard-won popularity for granted.

Led by veteran Arkestra mainstay Marshall Allen, the 12 musicians – decked in the group’s trademark outlandish, sparkling robes and hats – warm up with a cruise through various classic styles of jazz: cosmically warped big band swing, space-age bebop, sprawling salsa, even an unorthodox bash at the standard Stranger In Paradise. At one point, some members wonder through the crowd, still playing and chanting.

All of this is sprinkled the spontaneity and barely contained, avant-garde chaos that peppered the most celebrated selections amongst Sun Ra’s 100-plus album discography, keeping the proceedings from dipping into a stale tribute act territory.

A few weeks short of his 95th birthday, Allen makes his saxophone squeal as if the brass instrument was begging for mercy, and band members keep glancing at each other, half nervous and half amused, trying to figure out where this many-headed, lively noise might be heading next.

Turns out the Arkestra is only getting warmed up. Starting with an unruly gallop through the percussion-heavy, fiery protest ballad Somebody Else’s World, the final stretch of the generously portioned set presents an especially energised selection of Sun Ra standards, charged with a pulsating, untamed emphasis on rhythm that suggests the group has been given firm instructions to unleash a cosmic dance party, and keeps the crowd moving even as the horns swerve unpredictably from melody and funky refrains to pure, unadulterated abstraction.

The glorious racket is brought to a close with the group’s unofficial anthem Space Is The Place. For the duration of tonight’s exuberant, triumphant set (which provides a vibrant reminder that jazz came to being as dance music, sounds for the feet and the heart as well as the brain), the spot where the Arkestra are in operation is certainly the only sensible place to be.