Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND. Main Photo: The Sun Ra Arkestra
On Wednesday night, poet Quincy Troupe took to the stage without introduction and launched into his work, reading from two unpublished collections of his work. Troupe, invited by jazz trumpeter Miles Davis to co-write the musician’s autobiography, has deep connections with jazz, infusing his work with references to musicians and even reading with musical cadences. Troupe knows improvisation, collaboration–and even the need to listen and work as part of an ensemble–as he’s collaborated with musicians before, having worked with trombonist and AACM member George Lewis and including guitarist Kelvyn Bell and saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett on his 2011 SOUNDART release. His set-closing poem “Blue Mandela”, dedicated to Harlem-based artist Xenobia Bailey’s installation in the NYC subway’s new 34th St.-Hudson Yards station, brought Troupe a standing ovation as he exited the stage.
Pianist Connie Crothers’s set was (as promised) an exercise in free improvisation building on her angular, shimmering piano styling nicely complemented by Warren Smith’s solid drumming and Michael Bisio’s standout performance on bass.
The Sun Ra Arkestra returned to Vision as the closing set for the night–fortunately, at an earlier scheduled time than last year, when they took the stage well past midnight.
No strangers to finely honed (and theatrical) performance, the Arkestra entered the hall single file, chanting “this is the planet dream of the Earth Galaxy” as they filed through the standing room only crowd to take the stage. It could also be seen as a continuation of earlier in the day, when the Arkestra was one of the highlights of what’s becoming a Vision tradition of having a parade starting in the adjacent Washington Square Park cross the street to Judson. Marshall Allen, the Arkestra’s 92-year-old leader and conductor, finished off the first song with a positively celestial sounding flourish on the Electronic Valve Instrument (EVI), which Allen uses to supplement his saxophone and has become an acknowledged master at. The sound meshed perfectly with Judson’s acoustics, which are challenging to large ensembles such as the Arkestra. Indeed, the sound was a challenge throughout the set, as musicians signaled for more volume for their instruments. Part of the challenge is the difficult acoustics of Judson itself, a large open church with hard surfaces and high ceilings. Allen seems to have mastered the tricky acoustics, though.
The Arkestra’s “Discipline 27-II” kicked off with the sampled voice of none other than Ra himself sending a missive to the “People of Planet Earth”.
The Arkestra then launched into “Angels and Demons At Play”, with vocalist Middleton’s rich, deep vocals meshing with the synthesizer. Saxophonist Knoel Scott was inspired enough to put down his instrument and step to the front of the stage to show off his dance moves. Multiple roles and talents are simply par for the course for Arkestra members. As vocalist Tara Middleton explained to us after the set, there is no set list with the Arkestra, following how things worked under Ra himself. The band just responds to the vibrations present at the time and chooses songs accordingly.
The next piece matched Middleton’s scatting vocals to Allen’s upper register sax squeals in the bass and electric guitar – heavy tune that had the Arkestra swinging hard.
A bluesy acoustic bass solo kicked off “Blues in the Night”, eventually giving way to flute and electric guitar solo by Dave Hotep that allowed Middleton to show off her Blues chops.
The Arkestra classic “Love in Outer Space” followed and “When You Wish Upon a Star” was given the Arkestra’s unique, slightly atonal treatment and gave Allen the space to kick off the latter with a solo.
The final set-closing medley of “We Travel the Spaceways” and “Space is the Place” with the Arkestra leading a second line through the audience came all too soon.
Despite the issues with sound and acoustics, the Arkestra put in a strong performance, with Allen still playing with a force, intensity, and enthusiasm that defies his age. I’ve written that a few times about the Arkestra before, but it remains true and it’s something I hope to continue reporting for quite a while. However, with the addition of Middleton and other members who’ve been with the Arkestra a long time, Ra’s prodigious back catalog, fresh tunes composed by Allen added to the performance rotation, and the release of the Babylon CD/DVD set, the Arkestra looks set to be continuing traveling the spaceways for quite a while to come.
We’ll be reporting from Vision throughout the festival and I’ll have a wrap-up when it’s all done. If you haven’t caught it already, you can hear our Vision Fest preview show with Marc Ribot, Geri Allen, Lisa Sokolov, and Andrew Cyrille discussing Grimes’s influence and festival organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker talking festival logistics, which she’ll discuss on our colleague Basir Mchawi’s Education at the Crossroads show on Thursday at 7 PM EST. And, remember our next Suga’ in My Bowl show with Andrew Cyrille this Sunday at 11 PM EST on WBAI.
Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.
Joyce Jones is the executive producer and host of Suga’ in My Bowl. She is a graphic designer and her photos have been published in Black Renaissance Noir.