The Sun Ra Arkestra and John Sinclair – Barbican, London by Michael Horovitz, 4 June 2014

Detroit jazz poet John Sinclair, counterpointed by inventive British post-bop quartet The Founder Effect, whom he’d only just met, filled the first half hour of this marathon gig with echoes and premonitions of the Arkestra and of its visionary originator-captain Sun Ra, who died in 1993. Sinclair’s finale ‘Another Order of Being’ drew extensively on Ra’s pronouncements, notably that ‘A band can demonstrate unity among men more than anything else in the world’, and that ‘In some far place, many light years in space, where human feet have never trod! where human eyes have never seen! I’ll build a better kind of world’.

John Sinclair at The Barbican 31st May 2014

Then on ambled a dozen amiable all-black Arkestrans, exotically clad in flowing raiments and headgears of multinous shapes and colours, led by biblicly bearded, Popeishly mitred alto sax, flute and kora maestro Marshall Allen, who has directed the band’s various line-ups since 1995. What followed over the next two hours was pure Saturnalia, qua unrestrained merry-making – as came super/naturally, given it was just a few evenings after Ra’s 100th birthday – consolidating his lifelong insistence that he’d been delivered to Earth from Saturn to spread universal light.

The nonstop musical euphoria this edition of the band generated was one supreme generating factor, itself swathed throughout by another, the ebulliently bubbling psychedelic triple-screen liquid light-show laid on by ex-Pink Floyd illuminator Peter Wynne-Willson’s ‘Mystic Lights’. The band consisted of four saxes, two trumpets, trombone, french horn, guitar, two streams of percussion, Tyler Mitchell’s walking bass, the infinitely lyrical pianistics of Farid Barron and gospel-tinged songsprays from Tara Middleton.

Their repertoire included wild ‘inter-galactic’ Ra/Allen hits like ‘Sunology’, ‘Angels & Demons’, ‘Space is the Place’ interspersed with straight melodic, parodic, improvised/squealy-squawked variations on ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’, ‘Sometimes I’m Happy’ and the early Coleman Hawkins’ ‘Queer Notions’, plus unison and free-form honking’n’hooting’n’blurting’n’chanting, Swing Era riffing, with the marching band tradition recalled every so often by the horn-players taking off-stage sorties to every unoccupied foot-space in the jam-packed auditorium, whilst still blowing their (and many of our) arses off.

The kids’ playground/circus electricity were further recharged by Pucklike altoist Knoel Scott periodically erupting into nimbly balletic somersaults, flying handstands and joyously whizzing cartwheels, and a couple of times getting one of the other saxophonists to play vigorous physically-back-to-back duets with him.

The memory of this fantastic spectacle and its wondrous soundscapes will go on uplifting my spirits for many a moon. Should Ra himself have chosen to revisit that little bit of Earth for this party, he too may still be smiling these bits of his legacy’s work and play to have witnessed – and mayhap even deliver whatever he likes of it back to Saturn . . .

Michael Horovitz, 4 June 2014