The Chicago Jazz Festival ended Sunday night with a performance by the Sun Ra Arkestra celebrating his 100th birthday. It was led by the sax player Marshall Allen who has kept the band alive since the demise of Mr. Ra in 1993. Mr. Allen is now 90 but as they say, projects the energy of a man much younger. The band has a lot of older musicians who absolutely breath style. They don't play. They make music. This is not a tidy band suitable for a PBS special hosted by Winton Marsalis. It is not always the cleanest playing but it is exciting. The band can switch from space music free jazz to swing with ease. Most of the older band members are dressed in sequined outfits like you used to see in science fiction movies from the 50's; if the queen of outer space made dashikis. It is visually amusing and I guess helps market the band but doesn't add anything to the music. As with sex, the custom leather cat suit is all very well and good but if you are not in the groove you are not in the groove.
I remember Sun Ra when he played in Chicago in the 70's. It was always a good show. Slightly mad, with dancers. I particularly remember Sun Ra doing a straight ahead solo piano version of Over the Rainbow. As he got to the end little twitters started coming from the band. Soon it became a glowing mass of sound. A wonderful effect. No matter what the music always came first. It still does.
They haven't played here since 1996. Mr. Allen is 90. Do the math.