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Sun Ra Arkestra Under the Direction of Marshall Allen: Live at Babylon

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When Sun Ra and the Arkestra first performed in Istanbul, in 1990, some three years before their namesake’s death, they caused quite a stir. Decked out in full space-cadet costuming, the flamboyant collective played on the back of a flatbed truck, attracting a sizable crowd of the curious as they made their way to the city’s main modern shopping hub, Taksim Square. Since Ra’s departure, a reconstituted Arkestra led by alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, now 91, has kept the legacy going. Last year, to mark the 100th anniversary of Ra’s birth, the Arkestra returned to Istanbul to perform at the Babylon Club, run by the promoters of the 1990 extravaganza. Despite the loss of one of jazz’s most colorful leaders, little has changed-except that the Arkestra now seems practically mainstream.

Both the audio disc and the DVD of the 2014 performance reveal an Arkestra that, while no longer as unpredictable or zany as during its prolific past, still maintains a freewheeling looseness and deliberate other-ness. But that’s not to be confused with chaos: Where many other boundary-pushing contemporaries delighted in leaving all convention behind, the Arkestra never lost its allegiance to the blues, swing and other big-band conventions, best exemplified here in the relentless rhythm and rapid-fire solos of pianist Farid Barron, French-horn player Vincent Chancey and tenor saxophonist James Stuart on “Saturn,” and in the Latin underpinnings of “Care Free #2.” Even “Discipline 27B,” taking off in multiple directions simultaneously, emits a steady throb at its core, courtesy of baritone saxophonist Danny Ray Thompson.

“Satellites Are Spinning” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” both featuring purposefully key-challenged vocals by Tara Middleton (who also plays violin in the band), are about as “out” as 21st-century Arkestra gets, and by contemporary standards that’s not so out at all.

Originally Published