Sun Ra Arkestra -- Visions of Ra

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Lena Rogers, 5, and Marshall Allen, 92.

On the eve of Muhammad Ali's funeral, another favorite son of Louisville, Kentucky, Sun Ra Arkestra leader and Jazz icon Marshall Allen, at age 92, was leading a Second line like march through Washington Square Park in New York City.

Like Ali, the Sun Ra Arkestra's arch of history and cultural impact on modern music parallels the "greatest" in sports in and out of the ring.

Sun Ra was eight years ahead of Ken Kesey in creating a psychedelic atmosphere in public spaces, albeit without the main ingredient, LSD itself. Ra was "electric" in 1956, thirteen years of Miles' Bitches Brew in 1969.

It was Ra's tenor sax player, John Gilmore who taught John Coltrane the "sheets of sound" method of playing in the late 1950's and was years ahead of Bob Dylan's new form of lyricism. Without Ra, we wouldn't have Jimi Hendrix, Prince, or Black Sabbath's Planet Caravan; everyone from the MC5 (Starship) to Lady Gaga (Venus) have covered Ra's tunes.

Without Ra's afro-futuristic 1974 black exploitation film Space Is The Place, there would be no Close Encounters Of The Third Kind or Star Wars.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg saw Space Is The Place and both incorporated musical themes into each of their individual films. Consider the use of keyboards in Close Encounters to communicate with aliens and a Jazz bar band of aliens in Star Wars.

Ra also pioneered guerrilla studio recording, inspiring many Reggae and Punk bands to ditch expensive, wasteful overproduction and do it themselves too. Allen still is amazed at the indelible impact of Ra on modern music, past, present and future. Sixty years later after Sun Ra formed the Arkestra, it has toured the world twice in the last 12 months, topping off their record as the longest continually touring band ever.

But Allen never forgets the Arkestra's humble beginnings.

"When we started out, in 1956, we were a dance band," Allen told The Black Star News. "The origins of a lot of things we still do live, the costumes, parading on and off stage all began then back in Chicago."

Many of the recordings from 1950's still animate the Arkestra's live shows, like the fast paced dance tune, Saturn, from Sun Ra's 1959 Jazz In Silhouette.

Jazz cirtic and historian Mathew Wuethrich wrote "Jazz in Silhouette stands as an overlooked masterpiece, a work that shows Ra not as a mere curiosity or backwater galaxy, but as a major creative force in the jazz universe, a center of gravity around which many of jazz’s major developments have orbited.This album simply inspires, no matter what perspective you adopt: rhythm, melody, ensemble or mood....Jazz in Silhouette shows Ra doing what he did like few others: looking at the past, present and future simultaneously while maintaining a unified musical direction.... what results is a captivating set of music that not only firmly establishes Ra in the jazz tradition, but actually puts him on its leading edge, pointing the direction forward."

Allen joined the Arkestra in 1958 and for him Jazz In Silhouette stands out as one of his favorites. That says a lot considering Sun Ra has the largest discography of any artist, with literally thousands of recording sessions that have yet to be released.

Sun Ra's schizophrenic genius and space jams still intrigue and captivate Jazz and music fans around the world, whether its swing, bebop, free, funk or sounds of the future never heard before --a rarest trait for musicians to adapt to each evolutionary genre of music over long periods of time.

That genius was on full display at Judson Memorial Church, with the Arkestra being headline act of Vision Festival 21 in downtown New York City last week. In fact the Sun Ra Arketsra gets better with time, even 23 years after Ra's death in 1993. Just don't tell anyone in the band that. )

"They say his body is buried in Birmingham, Alabama. But I don't believe it. He is on Saturn," long time Arkestra horn player Danny Ray Thompson told me at dinner. That may be far fetched, but - according to filmmaker Cauleen Smith- since Ra's death he has in a sense achieved a kind of form of "cultural immortality."

The Vision Festival, founded 25 years ago in 1996 through non-profit Art For Arts by dancer/performance artist Patricia Nicholson-Parker and bassist/composer William Parker has mushroomed into the most important festival in the city.

Although they have had many struggles over the years, including the City's withdrawing a $20,000 grant this year, Nicholson-Parker told VF21 audience members that it sometimes feels like she is driving a "Flintstones Mobile," but it has been worth it in order to finally create a space for avant-garde Jazz to thrive in New York City, where the original scene began in 1964, culminating with the October Revolution in Jazz that fall.

Now led by Marshall Allan --critic Jason Ankeny describes Marshall as "one of the most distinctive and original saxophonists of the postwar era"--the Sun Ra Arkestra continues to tour the world, spreading the gospel of Ra, the grand-daddy of Afro-futurism. Allen has recently picked up the EVI, a kind of synthesizer/sax, breaking another mold that "serious" Jazz musicians must stick to one instrument. The VF21 show was remarkable, the Arkestra sounded tight and loose in all the right places. In the spur of the moment, Allen asked my five year old daughter if she would dance center stage during the show. Without hesitation, she agreed and performed onstage for most of the set.

Jen Shyu opened the second night of VF21 with a haunting “Song of Silver Geese” and visually stunning candle lit performance while playing a gayageum and moon lute. Poet Quincy Troupe pianist Connie Crothers’ hyper-improvised trio also performed before the Arkestra.

Although William Parker was noticeably absent from this years Vision, William's daughter Miriam Parker performed with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and Nicholson-Parker's group Breath thru Stone also played the final night along with VF21 closing act, tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan.

As with any Vision, VF21 was as magical and memorable as always. Yet, in the wake of the tragic Orlando massacre ruining the rest of the summer and certainly having adverse effects on the 2016 presidential election in November, VF21 may go down as the last event of the summer before the deluge, before the total accession of Trump in the general election, and before the world totally lost it's collective mind during this unique display of politically depraved lunacy this presidential election cycle.

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