June 17, 2024


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Sun Ra at Gateshead: The Sun Ra Arkestra, Alexander Hawkins and Tony Allen: Video

We saw the Sun Ra Arkestra, pianist Alexander Hawkins and drummer Tony Allen at the 2018 Gateshead Jazz Festival.

It’s the year of the nonagenarian. Lee Konitz has been touring Europe, while Sheila Jordan and Marshall Allen headlined the Gateshead International Jazz Festival. I wasn’t able to catch Ms Jordan (90 this year) but I did get to a superb gig by the Sun Ra Arkestra (pictured right), led by alto saxophonist Allen (93). Its founder died in 1993, but on this evidence, the Arkestra is performing as brilliantly – maybe more so – as when he was alive.

This was an involving show in every respect, musically and visually. The light show was impressive and Arkestra members appeared in their characteristic pre-Apollo era space gear, redolent of what Kodwo Eshun calls a “hyperbolic trope to explore the historical terms … of Black Atlantic subjectivities”. He’s referring to the complex African-American political subtext.

Some people have suggested that the Arkestra now sounds like the Ellington Orchestra. Well, Ra always referred to tradition, but that’s not true – though it would have been fine by me. The band featured an 11-strong line-up including Tara Middleton (vocals, pictured left), Cecil Brooks (trumpet), James Stewart (tenor saxophone), Knoel Scott (alto saxophone), Danny Ray Thompson (reeds) and Elson Nascimento (percussion).

Allen is certainly an advocate of the aesthetics of imperfection. In an interview from a few years ago, available online, he commented: “Say you hit relative minor instead of the 7th or 9th you’re supposed to play, people in the realm of the square will say ‘That’s not right!'”

The “realm of the square” is what I’d call perfectionists, and Allen doesn’t like them: “No! We present the vibrations of the day, which are always changing. I am not in the square, I’m in the…” – and he made a spiral with his index finger. As Allen also commented, this is a show band – the players dance and sing, and don’t sit still like traditional musicians. At one point three horn players paraded round the auditorium. Allen (pictured below right) is passing this legacy on to his younger generation of jazz players including saxophonist Scott and trombonist Dave Davis.

It’s a frustrating aspect of major festivals like Gateshead, often remarked on, that artists one wants to hear are often programmed in parallel. That was true for this first evening, when a remarkable set of solo pianists were performing at the same time as Allen and the Arkestra, in Northern Rock Foundation Hall. (Also at the same time, I wouldn’t have been averse to hearing Chris Barber, aged 87, in Hall Two.) So, I missed the first opening act, British singer Zara McFarlane, to catch Alexander Hawkins. It was an exploratory, imaginative and spontaneous-sounding set.

Returning to Hall One, I caught another Allen – Afro-beat maestro Tony Allen – in what was billed as A Tribute To Art Blakey. Allen was partnered by a jazzy horn section (trumpet and tenor sax), but the tribute seemed misnamed, as I didn’t hear too much hard bop in there. Tony Allen was Fela Kuti’s long-time drummer and helped to create the new musical language of Afrobeat: a mix of jazz and funk with Ghanaian and Nigerian highlife, strident horns and political content.

Though hard bop wasn’t particularly evident, the subtleties of jazz drumming were and I was intrigued to discover in an interview that Allen was influenced by the great but neglected West Coast drummer Frank Butler, who inspired him to practise every morning on pillows, making his sticks bounce off them while he was rolling. “It adds flexibility … Some drummers don’t know what it means to play soft, it’s not in their book”, he commented. This set made it clear that Allen does know what it means. Maybe it wasn’t one of Allen’s most compelling energised performances, but it was good to hear one of the progenitors of Afrobeat with a thoroughly sympathetic band.

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