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A meditation on my experience with the Sun Ra Arkestra

Shabaka Hutchings


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Jazz on 3 invited UK reeds player Shabaka Hutchings to sit in with the Arkestra for their Sun Ra centenary session. On 17th June 2014 Shabaka joined the band for a rehearsal followed by a concert and the subsequent day went into the studio with the band.

I've always been attracted to the rebels. Not the Hollywood types donning a leather jacket, a balaclava, a Molotov aimed at the gates of authority. These characters, necessary as they are, have never been ones I could relate to. I resonate with those who perceive the totality of the zeitgeist we inhabit (or which has come before). Characters who suggest alternate orthodoxies which challenge us to sculpt the future rather than wade through a tide of inevitability.
When I first encountered Sun Ra's work, his philosophies regarding our connection to the cosmos and the importance of myth in decoding and interpreting reality hit me. It hit me like no jazz musician's words had before. Maybe no-one before him was lucid enough to articulate such a complex value system or willing to tell it to a world governed by scepticism and squareness. Ra wasn't content to let critics second guess and misinterpret his eccentricities - he let the world know that he meant everything. No halfsteppin'.
Ra expounded the intricacies of his inner world fully appreciating his placement in the lineage of ancient systems of thought. These weren't loony theories propelled at an oppressive society in hopes of disassociating from it. They were ways of seeing, interacting with and accepting reality which had roots in many ancient mystic schools of thought (notably from ancient Egypt/kemet ). This was a timeless way of being, at once looking forward into a future ridiculed by those caught up in accepted patterns of living, yet seeing far back into a past they chose to forget or discredit. And such is the music of Sun Ra, stretching towards sonic futurism while laying its foundations within the jazz tradition.

A word of advice from an Arkestra member the day before I sit in - 'Marshall will want your all. Whatever you do, don't hold back. This will change your life.'
We rehearse. The attention to detail is staggering. Exact chord changes are negotiated, precise phrasing and articulations explained. All roads lead to Marshall Allen. He signs off on the musical decisions with a level of insight and frankness allowed only to a 90-year-old veteran. Moments of personal interpretation are granted, framed with precision when needed. But this isn't the stiff, dry big band machine one finds churning out correct interpretations of a bygone era.
The band functions as an organism, a living entity breathing life through every phrase. Each tune summons a microcosmic world exploding with manic, magical energy.
We perform at Cafe Oto. Awe. Marshall Allen solos on 'Dancing Shadows'. I am left gasping for words. Words charged enough to give life to pure feeling. I struggle to give structure to thoughts so discombobulated by this spectacle of joy that I can merely laugh at the audacity of what emerges from his horn. This is how you play avant garde saxophone. You immense yourself in the energy of the ensemble and you expand it from within, pushing against the wall of a vortex created by each band member's creative contribution.

Marshall created a sheet of sound. An actual physical mass of sonic stuff. Stuff so powerful it was almost tangible. Well, in terms of the way I perceived it, it was tangible. But where i stood in relation to this animated mass wasn't within the realms of my senses - my heart, soul, spirit, whatever esoteric terms one would describe the inner self with - this was what was touched, assaulted by this most physical of music. By the end of the solo, I felt I'd drifted from this world. This world of explanations, priorities, logic and reason. All those things that root us in the belief that we inhabit objective reality... that reality's borders cannot be breached to perceive other worlds.

A word of advice from Marshall after the first set: 'You don't have to know what you're doing. If you don't know you've got to just feel, and the feeling is the important thing. There are no mistakes.'
The band swung. It swung so hard the walls holding the music together started to rattle. Initially listeners encounter fear of collapse but the band stormed ahead, destroying and rebuilding. And once the fear subsided, all acknowledged this fearless bunch in praise. These individuals who build their houses in the leaves of trees bearing deep roots. Those free to move within and throughout history, sculpting a path glistening with imagination.

There are times when a love of the instrument I play comes to me in stark sonic bliss. Chances to hear old masters of the tenor saxophone are becoming fewer and further between as the older generation steadily passes. I'm sharing tenor sax duties with Charles Davis. This man is the real deal, wielding a sound at once heartbreaking and serene. It contains the spirit of the players I love - Dexter Gordon, Lester Young, John Coltrane.

The sound of their intentions. A sound which resonates with the same stuff that as a teenager first grabbed me and shook my mind, revealing the beauty of jazz. Awestruck, I ask him some mundane, college-boy question about his equipment. He replies in a monotone characteristic of his general demeanour - 'I play whatever works'. Full stop. I worry about mouthpieces and reeds; he just deals with the music.

A moment of enlightenment during our recording session. Marshall Allen plays 'Wish upon a Star'. He chooses fragments of the melody which he carefully caresses and deforms. The unnerving paradox of nurturing the thing you love then letting it go, free to grow into an entity of its own choosing. I see the purpose of those sax cries, celestial squeals and shouts: drama. His playing contains real drama. Mystery and shadows inhabit the foundation of his musical conception. His music is poetic.

The thoughts I am left with revolve around the concept of tradition. Questions emerge forcing me to confront its elasticity. The flexible fibre of this construct which enables us to redefine what we perceive to be the present, the terms by which we choose to live.
Defining the old and the new, realising the irrelevance of these terms, pondering meaning implicit in concepts which force us to negate infinity - this is a precarious dance. A dance which tempts us to dare define the age we inhabit and the possibilities at our disposal. In the words of the great Sun Ra himself - 'there are other is the place'.
More about this landmark radio recording from producer Joby Waldman. Listen to the performance in full in Jazz on 3 at 11pm on Monday 30 June.

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