Jazz anyone? The Big Band, Arkestra are too cool for this planet

by Ryan Snyder

Jazz anyone? The Big Band, Arkestra are too cool for this planet

Sometimes a visionary artist can create something bigger themselves, a living testament to their influence that indelibly persists beyond their own expiration. Jazz luminaries Charles Mingus and Sun Ra vacated this mortal coil 29 and 16 years ago respectively, but the bands bearing their names still carry forward their legacies and, in the case of Sun Ra, with many of the same musicians he played alongside his entire career. Both masters’ works were on display at Duke University’s Page Auditorium this past Saturday as the Mingus Big Band and the Sun Ra Arkestra co-headlined a rarified evening of remarkable jazz arrangements.

While their basketball program might be hated as equally as it’s loved, there’s no debating the merits of Duke’s performing arts series. It consistently puts together bills of underappreciated and overly talented artists from all corners of contemporary music.

The previous evening saw venerable free jazz man James “Blood” Ulmer incinerate an audience with his free-wheeling guitar style and irrepressibly soulful voice and they followed it up with what was basically a once-in-a-lifetime gig from two orchestras with nearly 30 members between them. Of the three bands carrying Mingus’s handle, the Big Band is the Cadillac. The 14-strong band is rather uncomplicated in its construction; piano, upright bass, drums, three trumpets, three trombones and five saxes; but the sound it creates is like no other.

Mingus’s greatest distinction was assimilating influences from hard bop, modal jazz and avant garde without necessarily being immediately identifiable as any one in particular. This particular evening, however, the set list leaned heavily toward Mingus’s best hard-bop standards, infusing spirited Southern gospel vocals with the rolling brass chorale. Trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy pulled a double session on “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” and “Fables of Faubus,” one of a handful of markedly protest-oriented pieces featured in their 90-minute set. Lacy was singled out for funky solos one minute and the next chanting, “Two, four, six, eight, they brainwash and teach you hate” in his husky diction, as his accompaniment followed his emotional lyrics to a slow crescendo.

Whereas Mingus wasn’t shy about his often racially charged work, Sun Ra practiced a bit of cognitive dissonance in regards to the Civil Rights Movement. A noted pioneer in the Afrofuturist movement, Sun Ra simply stated that he originated from a time and place where race simply wasn’t an issue — i.e. space and Saturn specifically. The glittery dashikis that constitute the band’s wardrobe might not seem all that extravagant, but within the context of their period of origin, it only compounds their musical eccentricity. Their gaudy attire aside, the first thing you notice about the Arkestra is their age. Many of these guys have been in this very band since the ’60s and ’70s, though some hail from the pre-civil rights 1950s, which just makes this incredible band all that much cooler.

Under the direction of saxophonist Marshall Allen, possibly the hippest octogenarian alive, the Arkestra emanated controlled chaos onstage and occasionally in the crowd. Using a unique blend of swing roots and bouncing Dixieland with a signature layer of cosmic discovery over top, Allen was all over the stage, giving his band vigorous direction while playing a formidable lead. The band refused to stay seated either, as Eddie Thomas bolted through the audience with cowbell in hand and trumpeter Michael Ray (of New Orlean’s Cosmic Krewe) broke out his ridiculously agile second-lines at the stage forefront. Notable pieces from the New York, Chicago and Philadelphia periods like “Face the Sun,” “Life is Splendid,” “When Angels Speak of Love” and the opus “Space is the Place” all graced the blissful 90 minutes, as even the staid Duke audience was moved to the unusual.

The final 10 minutes of the night was like something out of the “Chappelle’s Show” bit where Dave Chappelle shows how white people dance by bringing John Mayer to play guitar in the midst of a busy office. A crude conga line formed around the front of the stage, as two dozen uncoordinated, middle-aged baby boomers proved all the stereotypes true with arrhythmic and vaguely amorous gyrations. Not that anyone could blame them for bad dancing, especially considering the cosmic grooves emanating from the stage. It’s extraordinary that such aged music can still move some in such a way, but then again, space can be a pretty hip place.