Believe it or not, before I went to see the Sun Ra Arkestra at the Nublu Jazz Festival last week, I’d never heard the group’s or Sun Ra’s music. Here and there, I knew a few things about them: my godmother once played in a church band with a former member of the Arkestra, and of course, there was the “weirdness” factor—everything I knew about the man and his music related to him legitimately believing he was from a different planet, and the sometimes untraceable freeness of his compositions. I’d also heard that he was a serious pianist—both seriously talented and seriously underrated.
Thankfully, I knew before I got there that Sun Ra himself was dead and would not be making an appearance. The group is lead by multi-instrumentalist Marshall Allen, who plays and played, among other things, the alto saxophone, the oboe, and a instrument new to me, the Electronic Valve Instrument, or EVI, which, on Friday night, really appeared to be a musical pipe.
The band went on at around 12:40, beginning their set with a song opened by a wild drum solo. When the other instruments came in—and there was an assortment, including the baritone saxophone and trombone—I was pleasantly mystified. The music was strange, just as I knew it would be—free, with no clearly discernible, or at least discernibly traditional lines or melodies. It was Sun Ra just as I knew it would be.
But the rest of what I heard that night was surprisingly straightforward, straight-ahead blues and jazz, outfitted with walking basslines, lush horn harmonies, and twelve-bar blues structure. Though there were some extraterrestrial solos; though one member of the group walked through the crowd shouting “Another time and space!” while banging a cowbell; and though the garb these men wore—capes with bright sequins and odd hemlines (perhaps more evocative of Vegas than Venus), the free jazz I imagined I’d hear did not come to pass.
But with or without expectations or prior knowledge, the group was superb. They somehow all managed to fit onto Nublu’s tiny stage, and the audience was captivated from moment one, everyone all pressed together, taking pictures and videos, cheering. The crowd was mostly young, though there were decidedly older fans there, including the 85 year-old poet Gerald Stern (Marshall Allen himself is 86). I was amazed at the diversity of the crowd. I tried to speculate as to how so many young, non-hipster-looking New Yorkers came to know and love Sun Ra. I could arrive at no other answer than this: his music. His music and his remarkable scope of vision have left a legacy, which, nearly 20 years after his death, remain as impressive and important to jazz lovers today as they were the bulk of last century. Imaginative, prolific, profound, Sun Ra belongs to a category, to a cosmos, all his own.
Words by Kyla Marshell