Sun Ra Arkestra | photo by Emily DeHart for WXPN
Sun Ra Arkestra and Sounds of Liberation head up a night of powerful, purposeful cosmic jazz at Union Transfer
When jazz pianist, composer and iconoclast Sun Ra and his Arkestra moved to Philadelphia in the late 60s, they took up residence in the city’s Germantown section, living and practicing out of a house owned by the father of saxophonist and current Arkestra leader Marshall Allen. When Sun Ra arrived in Philadelphia, he encountered a city steeped in a rich history of “traditional” jazz. The sounds of be-bop, swing and hard bop lived in nightclubs and bars like Prince’s Total Experience right off of Broad & Hunting Park or Pep’s Lounge in South Philly.
In addition to the city’s “traditional” jazz sounds, Philadelphia was also home to a small cadre of young players and listeners who had embraced the avant-garde sound that Sun Ra and his Arkestra had gained infamy for. Amongst the hippies and progressives that lived in Germantown at the time, there were a host of creative musicians who sought to experiment and stretch the possibilities of jazz. Some of these young upstarts would join and play in Sun Ra’s Arkestra, others formed ensembles of their own. One of those ensembles, Sounds of Liberation would release one ultra-rare album New Horizons in 1972 before going dormant and reemerging nearly 5 decades later in 2019.
Last night at Union Transfer, Sounds of Liberation would make their return to the stage alongside The Sun Ra Arkestra in celebration of Marshall Allen’s 95th Birthday as well as the release of a newly-discovered full-length album of material. The show (organized by Philly Jazz and Experimental Music institution Ars Nova) opened with a set of solo drumming by Eli Keszler. With his quick percussive blasts and fills jumping out of a subtle and dense wash of sound, Keszler’s inventive polyrhythms suspended in ambient space.
Following Keszler, Sounds of Liberation threw the gauntlet down from the first song, launching into “Keno,” a piece from their “new” album that was composed by deceased Philly saxophone giant Byard Lancaster who was both a member of the Sun Ra Arkestra and a co-founder of Sounds of Liberation. The song’s playful melody played beautifully against a strong Afro-Cuban rhythm. As Sounds of Liberation ripped through their set, they put the entire room on notice that, despite the fact that they had not existed as a band for the better part of five decades, they are still strong instrumentalists, able to lock in and collectively journey into the deepest depths of creative improvisation.
Dressed in full, shining regalia, the Arkestra took to the stage and unleashed a swirling, cosmic whirlwind version of the classic Sun Ra composition “Astro-Black.” The band ripped through a set that was at different parts full of joy, ecstasy, fire and full-on sonic terror. At 95 years old, Allen’s playing is strong, purposeful. Throughout the performance he alternated between playing and conducting the band with authority. Standing strong in continuous existence for well over six decades, the Arkestra itself is an old yet nimble machine rooted in centuries of tradition, molded by discipline and powered by imagination.
This collision of tradition and experimentation, knowing and the discovery of not-knowing was embodied tonight in the performance of every musician involved. As young people and elders packed into the venue to pay respect and celebrate what came before, it was almost as if the past had been invited into the domain of the present. Appropriately, during their performance, the Arkestra brought along the sampled voice of Sun Ra himself, allowing him to speak and remind us that “…history repeats itself….”