It's a long way from Chicago's East Side to the well mannered bohemia of Lewes Con Club via the outer spaceways, but here are the Arkestra, resplendent in shimmering robes, swaying to the beat as their blue-lipsticked singer intones, "We're all living in a space age". The Afro-Futuristic schtick might seem like an exercise in arch nostalgia in these scruffily hip environs were it not for the ferocious energy emanating from their nonagenarian director, Marshall Allen.
A diminutive figure, his splendid attire topped with a pointed hat, he looks like a sprightly hobgoblin. With one hand worrying at his horn as the other clutches convulsively at the air, he leads his cohort from a forest of hypnotic groove into a swamp of anarchic chaos and out again into a rollicking big band riff-fest. When the horns suddenly lock together into a driving unison, with Allen's trademark shrieks swirling above like a flight of demented fruit bats, it's as thrilling as anything on the contemporary scene. Plenty of Arkestra trademarks have survived the passage of more than 60 years intact; enthusiastically amateurish percussion, hoarse impassioned group chants, bravura solo statements, impromptu outbreaks of dancing and offstage invasions by the garishly clad horns. Allen's leadership has maintained both the avante-garde explorations that characterised Sun Ra's original impulse, and the good old-fashioned sense of popular swing-era entertainment that nurtured his roots.
It's like being taken on a journey through the byways of black music history, delivered with equal measures of passion and good humour. Allen's alto tone is capable of surprising sweetness, like a feral Johnny Hodges, and there's great display of the timeless jazz verities from the band before the final inclusive singalong. The Arkestra is like a peripheral planet, eternally orbiting the horizon, yet remaining at the heart of what jazz is all about.
– Eddie Myer
– Photo by Jon Southcoasting