12.08.2011, Words by Zara Wladawsky

Sun Ra Arkestra

At some point around 2pm a spaceship landed in Victoria Park, London. About twenty minutes later its inhabitants graced the mainstage of Field Day and graced us with an interplanetary message passed down from their deceased leader, avant-garde jazz pioneer and prolific composer Sun Ra. His Arkestra, now led by 87-year-old alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, beamed down onto the mainstage clad in glittering robes and headdresses that would outdo East London’s most cosmic fashion kids. Minutes later a swirling cacophony of instruments beamed out to a mostly confused audience. However, there was purpose and structure within what, on first listen, seemed to be a fifteen minute introduction of sonic madness. A piano riff appeared here and there, followed by a response thumped out on the bass, and the squawking horns suddenly lock into rhythm then burst free moments later running into their individual modal spaces. No, this wasn’t an unplanned mess at all. It was meticulously controlled chaos encapsulated in musical form.

There was hesitant applause when the band ended their initial offering and the crowd thinned rather quickly with many people clearly mouthing “What the fuck…?” to their equally horrified mates. The band, and core group of fans, took no notice of these misguided earthlings and launched straight into a varied set of Sun Ra’s pieces and a few big band standards over the next half hour. This portion proved to be easier to digest by the crowd and the applause grew following each number. Solos were expertly delivered and never seemed to dawdle or lag, and the ensemble be-bopped and grooved with a tightness so effortlessly precise that it felt loose. Sadly this wasn’t an easy venue for the members to run through the crowd chanting and playing their instruments, which is always something I look forward to seeing them do, but the group still maintained an incredible amount of energy from start to finish. I only wish that the sound was a bit louder for those that wanted to lie down towards the back and let the Arkestra’s teachings wash over us.

Allen finally reached out to crowd before the last tune wishing everyone a great rest of their day and the group delivered their set’s highlight, a fantastic rendition of We Travel The Spaceways and left the stage to continue on their intergalactic mission.

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