Sun Ra Arkestra plays on at Brooklyn concert, delighting jazz fans of every age

Sun Ra Arkestra member Marshall Allen smiling at concert
99 year old Marshall Allen reveling in the applause at the end of the show presented by Blank Forms at Pioneer Works
Photo by Bob Krasner

“Sound of Joy” is the name of an LP by the celebrated Sun Ra and his Arkestra that was recorded way back in 1956. Although the leader of that group is long gone, his Arkestra plays on with a spirit and level of musicianship that ensures that the phrase still whole heartedly describes the music that emanated from the 20 or so musicians onstage on July 9 at Pioneer Works.

If you know Ra’s music, you know — but if you love jazz and you’ve somehow avoided the work of the man who claimed to have brought his music to us from beyond this earth, well, you’re missing out.

The free show was put on by Blank Forms, the occasion being their publication of “A Strange Celestial Road,” a memoir by trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah who was a member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra for 20-odd years.

Abdullah preceded the group’s stellar performance with a reading from that book, recounting the day that Ra called his house to recruit him for a gig that was to become more of a life journey than a job. He also performed with his wife and a few friends before the Arkestra took the stage decked out like a group of wizards from another (very glitzy) planet.

The star of the show was undoubtedly the marvelous 99 year-old Marshall Allen, who took over as band leader when Sun Ra passed in 1993. He has managed several feats of great magnitude: Not only has he continued to perform (beautifully, we must add), he has kept the group together and not just as a pale mirror of its former glory — the Sun Ra Arkestra is just as much a vital music making machine as any big band out there. 

Of course, there aren’t a lot of big bands out there — which is also to the point.

Marshall Allen playing an EWI ( Electronic Wind Instrument ) at the free show in Brooklyn on Sunday eveningPhoto by Bob Krasner
Ahmed Abdullah in a joyful moment with the ArkestraPhoto by Bob Krasner
Photo by Bob Krasner
Photo by Bob Krasner
Arkestra Fans: The Next GenerationPhoto by Bob Krasner

While the music is not as “out there” as it was in Sun Ra’s prime, it’s a thrill to watch a group of great musicians having a great time making great music. The audience — about 1,500 jazz fans whose ages ran from “I was there” to “I can’t believe I’m here” — was a very mixed bunch and included plenty of folks who were born long after Ra left the planet.

Doc Kelly, co-founder of Psychedelic Sangha and an educator at the New School, proclaimed the show to be “a beautiful Brooklyn baptism for me — I had never seen the Sun Ra Arkestra live before. And Pioneer Works held perfect space for a diverse crowd that even included my two dogs!”

Barbara Bullard, of B-Bullard LLC and President of the Shirley Chisholm Cultural Institute, proclaimed that “the love for community came through with the energy of the legacy of the legendary musician Sun Ra. It has lingered throughout for generations from babies to seniors to embrace. The musical presentation of the Sun Ra Arkestra with Ahmed Abdullah brought Brooklyn the ultimate treasure.”

A contemplative Marshall Allen onstagePhoto by Bob Krasner
Photo by Bob Krasner
Photo by Bob Krasner
Photo by Bob Krasner

Lawrence Kumpf, Blank Forms’ Artistic Director, discussed afterwards a bit of his organization’s history and how the Arkestra fit in to their work and programming, which has included some diverse and fantastic shows lately.

“Blank Forms was founded in 2016 to support non-idiomatic, boundary-pushing artists—often coming out of creative music—and to support their work in whatever form their practice takes, be it concerts, performances, exhibitions, records, or publications,” he noted. “Like many of the most satisfying projects, A Strange Celestial Road emerged organically.  When Ahmed told us about his unpublished memoir, it immediately appealed as a personal account of working with one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. But the deeper we got, it especially resonated as a largely untold history of Brooklyn’s role as a center of jazz, art and political radicalism.” 

“The Sun Ra Arkestra are very important artists in Blank Forms’ organizational history,” he continued. “We’re inspired by the group’s resilient dedication to visionary, spiritual, and ecstatic music, and the non-traditional structure that they’ve assumed to keep the music alive. “

More info about Blank Forms at blankforms.org and on Instagram at @blankforms_.

The Sun Ra Arkestra can be found at sunraarkestra.com and on Instagram at @sunraarkestraofficial.