The sound of joy is enlightenment

It is sad to realize that I could have seen Sun Ra himself playing with his Arkestra but have not, as for a brief moment we both roamed this planet at the same time. At the age of 15 in the nineties, however, I had not yet discovered jazz and was not aware of this already legendary ensemble. Sun Ra himself passed away in the early nineties. However, his Arkestra is still touring and yesterday I had the opportunity to witness their concert in Sexyland in Amsterdam.

I remember the first time I consciously heard a Sun Ra record. It must be around 15 years ago, an internet radio station (I think it was, but it might have been played the out-of-this earth 21 minutes long Atlantis. It transformed me, it lifted me up out of the regular plane of existence. I knew then, this was something special.

It’s rare to come across a musician that has this ability. It has happened on just a few occasions since then, the most recent at the Vijay Iyer sextet’s performance at North Sea Jazz 2018.

But that’s for another post, back to Sun Ra. Hearing Atlantis triggered an obsessive exploration of the immense discography Sun Ra left us. And with each record that showed yet another side of this enormously diverse keyboard player, I wished I could have seen this brilliant group of musicians live.

While that is not possible, Sun Ra and many of his band members have passed away by now, the contemporary Sun Ra Arkestra led by Marshall Allen (himself a brilliant saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist) and consisting of a number of original musicians who played with Sun Ra as well as more recent joiners offers a glimpse of the legend.

Upon arriving at the venue, the unassuming wooden structure on the NDSM wharf in Amsterdam north was appropriately covered in shiny gold-coloured foil to make it look like a spaceship. Part of the band was outside (it was a warm spring evening). Upon realizing it was ten past nine they quickly entered the building to don their similarly glittery garments. I followed them inside.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Here was a legendary band that has been active since the forties of the previous century (that’s more than 70 years mind you), touring today to celebrate their band leader Allens’ 95th birthday (this May the 25th). Would there be anything left from the bombastic explosion of alien sound that marked their concerts of the fifties and sixties?

Now, of course, this is not the 30-piece band it was. And yes, there were the occasional mistakes. But the spirit of Sun Ra was unmistakably there. Right from the get go they set into a hypnotic groove, taking me out of my surroundings and into their musical narrative.

Brilliant solo’s, from the almost 95-year old Marshall Allen for example, who demonstrated amazing control over his instrument.

Halfway the performance, vocalist Tara Middleton together with the rest of the band set in the chant “space is the place”, with part of the band leaving the stage and parading through the audience. A gimmick? Perhaps. Does it matter? No. I was transported, powered by their music, to regions of outer space.

I would not have wanted to miss this gig. I truly enjoyed the original compositions by Sun Ra as well as the compositions by Allen. It is amazing that Sun Ra’s legacy continuous in this day and age. And judging by the audience, his music still mesmerizes today. I expected an older audience yet the average age was probably around 20 or 25 and many were dancing to the groove.

I decided to go for a reprise tonight at Tivoli Vredenburg in Utrecht. It’s music like this that makes me feel alive, that inspires me, that makes me think about my existence and why I am on this planet. It is the sound of joy, and it brings enlightenment.

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