The stage was set for a truly out of this world show, as famed avant-garde Jazz greats Sun Ra Arkestra played a truly spaced-out concert on Saturday night at SummerStage in NYC’s Central Park. This is one of the first official in-person free shows held here at Rumsey Playfield since the Covid pandemic that had closed down the annual bounty of concerts and cultural events last year. This was also my first show at an actual venue since February of 2020, and I was incredibly pumped to experience the transformative power of live music in person after such a long and lonely year and a half of no concerts. The night was perfect for an otherworldly event, as the full moon was on the rise, the weather was cool and not at all humid, and the crowd was light and comfortably spaced both physically and mentally. This show did not disappoint fans of the classic cosmic jazz pioneer Sun Ra, as the music and the performance truly did transport everybody in attendance up into the cosmos and gave us all an uplifting escape from the isolation and quarantine of the past year.
Opening the set was a swinging samba-inspired set by DJ Greg Caz who got the crowd all jazzed up. Then came an explosion of inspiration with the Chicago trio called Sistazz of the Nitty Gritty, who had that appropriately loose and improvised feel with a classic jazz and blues sense that worked well opening for the almighty Arkestra. The group is headed up by clarinetist and vocalist Angel Bat Dawid, who started this formation as a pandemic-inspired side-project from her full seven-piece band called Tha Brotherhood. She is joined by the bountiful talents of pianist and vocalist Anaiet and bassist Brooklynn Skye Scott. Anaiet is a particularly gifted composer, and to hear Angel belt out a tune is nothing short of magical, and together they make a potent team. They did tease of upcoming studio material, so I look forward to hearing more from these three extraordinary talents.
This was also a home-coming show of sorts, as The Sun Ra Arkestra were something of a NYC-area institution through much of the 1960’s, and their experimental presence can still be felt in the local music scene today. As I imagine most in attendance knew, the band’s leader and namesake Le Sony’r Ra died way back in 1993, but the band has lived on under the direction of now 97 year old saxophonist Marshall Allen, The Arkestra’s longest remaining member, and they even recently released a new LP Swirling, the group’s first album of new material in over 20 years.
Sun Ra started his playing around with musical interstellar travel way back in the post-World War 2 Chicago jazz scene of the late 1940’s, where he got a taste for performing extremely loosely improvised music with big band and rag time influences infused with a spacy edge. From his very early days he bathed his performances with a tastes of space-aged vaudeville-like showmanship, clothing his large ensembles of musicians in loudly glittering outfits, speaking openly of being born on Saturn and travelling the stars, and dressing the show and band up with ancient Egyptian themes and attire. By the time he had moved his huge troupe, that included future jazz greats like Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, and June Tyson, over to NYC’s Lower East Side in the early 60’s, he had already started his own label and recorded an impressive catalogue of more than a dozen or so albums that paraded a new kind of music that in many ways was “psychedelic music” before that was even a thing. Their presence on the NY scene helped shape the Big Apple into one of the first bastions of hippie culture in the country and transformed the Village into an even trip-ier bohemia than it already was. His far-out music influenced everybody from contemporaries like John Coltrane and Miles Davis to rock bands from the MC5 to Sonic Youth. His influence was felt far and wide, and after over 200 recorded studio albums and years of relentless touring, his death in 1993 was felt across the wide-ranging musical landscape.
At this show, Marshall Allen did an excellent job of bringing back the disciplined playing and the cosmic experiences of interstellar travel via jazzy space-ways as Sun Ra would have wanted, as he conducted the massive orchestra that packed the sizeable stage with over 22 musicians with some tightly controlling swishing hand waves to his many compatriots, but also knowing when to selectively let certain musicians and songs go off the rails and rocket into the stars when they needed to go off. Long-time Arkestra players pianist Farid Barron and saxophonist Knoel Scott were both stand out players, but they all had moments of glory through the night with brilliant solos that even sometimes stretched into absurdist and surrealist realms. Their late-set rendition of the classic track “Space Is the Place” brought the whole crowd to a whole new state of consciousness and featured the whole band getting up and dancing around this stage. They filled the whole park with other-worldly energies I had not experienced in far too long and made it seem like the whole place might very well lift off into the stars.
Article: Dean Keim