The Sun Ra Arkestra Make a Welcome Return to a Laid-Back Outdoor Williamsburg Space
As far back as the 90s, the Sun Ra Arkestra had become a fixture on the New York summer outdoor festival circuit. A Central Park twinbill with Sonic Youth earned the sprawlingly cinematic jazz ensemble a brand new audience with the indie rock crowd. In the years immediately leading up to the 2020 lockdown, they’d been scheduled to play a more intimate space than usual, the courtyard at Union Pool. As it turned out, it took a few cancellations and some rescheduling to get them there. That’s where they’ll be this August 28 at around 3 PM. Under ordinary circumstances, it would make sense to get there early. But the circumstances we face today are anything but ordinary, and in a city that by some estimates has lost a quarter of its population, there probably won’t be an overflow crowd (and if there is, you’ll be able to hear the missing link between P-Funk and the Art Ensemble of Chicago just fine from the sidewalk around the corner).
The Arkestra were DIY pioneers, releasing much of their legendarily voluminous output themselves. Today, most of those original recordings, along with limited-edition pressings on long-defunct European free jazz microlabels, command auction-level prices on the collector market. Serendipitously, the group have been digitizing and re-releasing select albums from throughout their career. The latest one to hit their regularly updated Bandcamp page is the 1983 recording The Sun Ra Arkestra Meets Salah Ragab In Egypt, a collaboration with the Cairo Jazz Band. It’s noteworthy for being a slinky, sometimes haphazard, utterly psychedelic collection of compositions by pioneering Egyptian jazz composer, percussionist and bandleader Salah Ragab.
The first track is Egypt Strut, a surreal mashup of a New Orleans second-line groove, a chromatic Middle Eastern-tinged theme and the blues. In Dawn, the second track, the groups combine to balance a blithe flute tune against galloping percussion, followed by a cantering, hypnotically circling theme echoing sounds from the southern end of the Sahara.
Ramadan begins with a muezzin-like call-and-response, then the ensemble flesh it out with darkly dramatic vocals, horns and tumbling drums followed by a biting solo from the bandleader – who went back to Saturn to stay in 1993 – and a spirited flute outro with a nod to Take Five.
Oriental Mood is the catchiest and hardest-hitting track here, with jajouka-like brass, animated sax solos and piano. The ten-minute Farewell Theme is a more robustly orchestral series of variations on that theme, and considering the length, about twice the fun. Throughout the album, Sun Ra switches between glimmering, echoey Fender Rhodes and organ, backed by punchy massed horns, and sailing and spiraling solos. How does all this sound compared to the group’s sound now? Much the same, if you leave out the distinctive Middle Eastern and North African references.
The last time this blog was in the house at a show by the Arkestra, it was at the Union Pool courtyard, over the Labor Day weekend in 2018. The crew onstage were a mix of veterans, some of whose time in the group went back to around the time of this album or before, along with some more recent additions. The yard was crowded but wasn’t completely sold out, and the group’s long, slowly crescendoing trajectories kept everyone on their feet.