Space is the place, Sun Ra proclaimed, he was just paying Earth a visit.
The eccentric jazz man – whose live performances featured caped crusaders playing music that turned hard bop on its ear by utilizing an unholy mix of dissonance, modal chants and swing – claimed Saturn as his home. "That's what he said and that's the way he acted, like he was from somewhere else," says Marshall Allen, a member of Sun Ra's famed Arkestra since 1958. "He was just a gift from the Creator."
Allen, a soft-spoken man who talks slowly and deliberately, seems more in tune with Ra's spiritual side than the flashy extraterrestrial aspect of his leader.
"The music he was playing was like sight-seeing," says the 84-year-old saxophonist who assumed the role of Arkestra bandleader two years after Sun Ra's 1993 death. "Sights and hearing and feeling, so you can express the tune with lights and colors." Ra's Arkestra was often 30-strong, with fire-eaters mingling among the dancing musicians onstage and strobe lights giving the scene an otherworldly feel. But Allen says it wasn't all just for show. "If you did the music right, it was good for your own well-being."
Though the Arkestra is downsized today to 20 members, directing the avant-gardist bunch in a free-form performance must be like steering a planet. "You got to use the spirit of what you know and what you don't know," Allen chuckles. "And what you don't know is just so beautiful you didn't know you could do [it.]"
Sets feature both old and new material, with Allen rearranging the classics and composing new ones. The spirit of creation gives back as well. "The Creator gave us a gift," he says, "and if it makes [for my] well-being, I can give some to you."