Sun Ra to shine in Tel Aviv

At 87, Marshall Allen is keeping the Sun Ra legacy alive and kicking

The Arkestra Band Sun Ra  521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Arkestra Band Sun Ra 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If there were ever a musical act to which the now somewhat arcane epithet “out of this world” applied it was Sun Ra, and his merry Arkestra troupe. For over three decades the pianist-bandleader and his combo graced the stages of the world clad in attire that looked like it came from the dressing rooms of a 1950s sci-fi movie. The musicians often wore shiny colorful cloaks and equally eyecatching headgear while they strutted their musical stuff. Next Saturday in Tel Aviv we will have an opportunity to see and hear what the Arkestra is up to, even though Sun Ra is no longer around, having, as he put it before his death, left Earth for some other cosmic body in 1993.
For the past 18 years the band has been led by 87- year-old saxophonist-flutist-oboist Marshall Allen, and he has kept the Sun Ra legacy alive and kicking, performing all over the globe and putting out albums at an impressive rate. All told the ensemble has released over 200 recordings and played thousands of concerts over the years, performing a dizzying range of styles, from traditional swing music to gospel, funk, free jazz, alternative rock and hip hop.
Sun Ra and the band always put the visual element front and center, and have always provided patrons with entertainment value.
“Sun Ra used to say we have to be a show band,” says Allen. “He said we had to sing, dance and play the music – everything that goes on in a show. That’s how the band was built.”
The colorful gear was part of that mind-set.
“He said that if you’re going to have a show band you have to have costumes, special lighting and all kinds of special things.”
That means there is almost no downtime in the Arkestra’s gigs.
“Sun Ra said he didn’t want anyone sitting around like a statue,” adds Allen. “You’ve got to keep things interesting and fun, rocking, dancing and staying alive, you know.”
Allen has certainly been doing all that, and then some, for almost nine decades, and has kept the Sun Ra torch burning brightly across the globe.
One of the most appealing things about the Arkestra is the energy level all the musicians put out, and their ability to go with the flow. You might expect a band led by a man way past pension age to solely focus on keeping the roots of the art form alive, but Sun Ra and Allen after him have never subscribed to the museum approach to music. While there is an inherently traditional feel to the combo it has always kept up with the times. And the Arkestra players always seem to be having a good time.
“Sun Ra liked us to joke and laugh, and stuff like that,” says Allen. “The audience appreciates that.”
Onstage antics notwithstanding, Sun Ra, Allen and the rest of the gang always feed off the grassroots.
“Even with all those things going on, it’s still about swing,” observes Allen.
When Allen started out with Sun Ra, back in 1958, he was already an established and highly respected member of the jazz community. One critic described Allen as “one of the most distinctive and original saxophonists of the postwar era.”
Allen was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and was stationed in France during World War II. He later studied alto saxophone in Paris and played all over Europe with pianist Art Simmons and live wire saxophonist- flutist James Moody.
“I grew up with swing and the blues,” notes the band leader. “I liked [saxophonists] Johnny Hodges and Coleman Hawkins, and clarinet players too. I tried the baritone sax for a while, but that was too big to carry around the whole time.”
Allen is probably best known for the pyrotechnic effects he produces from his alto saxophone, preferring a broader sound to a chord-based approach. He was also one of the first jazz musicians to play traditional African music, and frequently worked with Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji. Despite his busy Arkestra schedule Allen has also performed and recorded with a diverse range of acts, such as American rock bands NRBQ and Phish, New York hip hop trio Digable Planets and high energy jazz band Medeski Martin & Wood.
“I play all the styles,” declares Allen. “I like nice melodies, but always with lots of energy. The band plays music by [legendary band leaders] Duke [Ellington], Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman. They left us with the treasure for us to pick up and carry on.”
But Sun Ra and sidemen always had a least one eye and ear on the future.
“Back in the Fifties we told people we were playing music for the 21st century.
Back then some people thought we were a bit crazy, but there were always people who were looking for something a bit different.
We’d play the more mainstream stuff for the older people and some of the crazy stuff for the teenagers. I always liked the fact that we played all those different kinds of music, and that everyone had to come up with something all the time.
“It kept everyone busy and kept things interesting. We’d sing a tune, then we’d dance a tune and then we’d clown around, all those kinds of things. And we’d have poetry, you know, we use our imagination.”
When we spoke Allen wasn’t quite sure how many musicians he’d be bringing to the Barbi club, although the audience is guaranteed a sizable presence on the stage.
“It depends on how much I can afford to bring – probably around 15 players,” he says. “I don’t know if we’ll be bringing any dancers, but we’ll do some dancing ourselves, me too. It keeps you healthy and in shape.”
Allen says he still feels Sun Ra’s spirit when he plays and, since the founder’s departure, he has kept the flag flying and a smile on his face.
“There is no point in groaning and crying [when someone dies]. I said to myself that I’ll keep his music out there and keep it alive. I imagine what he might do and just go on.”
Allen adds his own penny’s worth from time to time.
“I also write and record my own music. Just keeping it all alive.”

Sun Ra Arkestra will play at Barbi in Tel Aviv on December 3 at 9 p.m. For tickets: