The Sun Ra Arkestra – Live in Zurich

Last week, I went to see the Sun Ra Arkestra play live. It was part of the Taktlos Festival at the ‘Rote Fabrik’ in Zürich, and a triple celebration for the legendary ensemble: 1) The 100 year anniversary of Sun Ra’s descent on Planet Earth (=his 100th birthday), 2) the 90th birthday of the Arkestra’s leader and conductor – Marshall Allen, 3) The release of a vinyl record, with pieces performed by Marshall Allen and Kash Killion.

If you’re a jazz person, you’ve probably heard of the celebrated Sun Ra Arkestra. If not, well, there’s hardly another act in Jazz history which deserves the term ‘legendary’ as much as them. Not very much is known about the members of the Arkestra – apart from the facts that most of them live together in a commune, which was started by the founder of the group (Sun Ra, claiming to be a descendant from the planet Saturn, passed away in 1993), and that they are all followers of his philosophy and ways of life. And, obviously, that they’re among the best jazz musicians on this planet at the moment.

Performing, recording, and touring since the late fifties, albeit with different musicians, their music is still nothing short of captivating, engaging, and thrilling. Most of all, they’re just a fun act to watch live.

It’s the second time I’ve seen them live now, and their two acts, each around one and a half hours in length, were sprawling with energy, and creativity. I tried to capture a few portraits, although it was difficult in the low light situation, being somewhat far away.

Marshall Allen on the left
Marshall Allen on the left

A technical sidenote: I really enjoy using the Olympus OM-D EM5 as a concert camera. The image stabilization is nothing short of fantastic, and paired with good ISO performance, I’m able to get decently sharp shots even in low lit situations. I either use the Zuiko 17mm or 45mm F/1.8 lenses, or the Panasonic Lumix 45-200mm, but with an aperture of between 3.5 and 5.6, it struggles in certain situations, and it’s nowhere near as sharp as the two former pieces of glass.

The Arkestra
The Sun Ra Arkestra live at the Taktlos Festival 2014

Listening to the pieces was like a walk through the history of jazz: Early big band jazz, Third Stream, New Orleans marching music and funk, intense free jazz and vocal jazz ballads.
The Violin
The Violin
Knoel's Solo
Knoel Scott
My favourite performer of the night was definitely Knoel Scott, who played alto sax, and also spun some cart-wheels and did some dance moves on stage during the solos of his fellow arkmates. I got to meet him before and after the concert (as well as Marshall Allen himself), where he tried to sell me his solo album (successfully, of course). The friendly, down-to-earth (no pun indended) attitude was another reason why this ensemble is among the greatest that ever hit the world of jazz.

Ra's Pianist

The Arkestra

During the show, Marshall Allen’s ferocious solos were something you would not expect of a nonagenarian, especially not over the course of roughly three hours. Apart from the fifteen minute break between the two sets, he was continously active and in motion, restlessly conducting his fellows on stage, blasting sheets of sound out of his saxophone (or flute), hardly ever standing still for a moment.

Marshall's Solo

After the show, I got to meet the man behind the stage. It offered me to witness a very humane aspect of the personality: a loving, frail, elder soul, still full of life and joy. Calm, smiling, and incredibly friendly. It was just a short encounter, but one I will remember for a long time.

“In my music I speak of unknown things, impossible things, ancient things, potential things. No two songs tell the same story.”

Sun Ra’s Arkestra, live at the “Rote Fabrik”  in Zürich, May 22nd 2014.

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