by Chris Toenes
Mingus Big Band and Sun Ra Arkestra
Page Auditorium, Duke University, Durham
Saturday, Sept. 26
Wild horses were not obstacles getting into Page Auditorium, but they were about the only things missing: Duke University's homecoming football game had a kickoff time matching the start of a double bill with the Sun Ra Arkestra and the Mingus Big Band, so West Campus looked like some mad maze teeming with cars and pedestrians in every direction. M.C. Escher would have been proud. Of course, there was the rain, too. My fellow travelers and I determined that the reason the traffic cop directed the lane across from us endlessly, without giving us equal time, must have been a hatred of jazz. Too bad for him...
One person needing no direction was the Mingus Big Band's de facto announcer, bassist Boris Kozlov. Before each long, circuitous piece, Kozlov, a Moscow accent thick on the tongue, explained a bit of the piece's origin. With Mingus' music, rich and complex as it is, there cannot be one conductor. So, during the course of their monster set, nearly everyone in the band, all 14 of them, signaled and acknowledged each others' next moves. During "Fables for Faubus," trombonist Frank Lacy shouted the song's protest markers, like "No More Swastikas!" and sang beautifully on other numbers. Dedicated to Mingus' last wife, "Sue's Changes" had so many changes, making clear that the Big Band's members were all world-class musicians in their own right. Throughout the night, Mingus' blues-based feel resounded through the hall, which felt nearly full, though there was room to spare. Solo performances like pianist David Kikoski's and a head-twisting workout by baritone sax player Lauren Sevian pointed out the outfit's ability to play with Mingus's work. A whole set of that was full of heart-swelling instances of uplift.
After an intermission, where audience members flocked toward the rain for the promise of free wine, the stage was reset for the Arkestra, led by Marshall Allen. When I spoke with Allen in 2005 for the Independent, he spoke highly of the band's loyalty to its mentor: "Early on, it was a gentleman's band, where everybody got along, and some had grown up together. Hometown boys, had families and stuff. But they'd always be there for Sun Ra. You had to really learn all this stuff with him, history and religion, and it was like a school, you see. Later, when we went out on the road, we lived like a family. We'd look out for each other."
And here they are, still there for Sun Ra. Members change along the way, and Allen has followed in principal leader John Gilmore's footsteps, to this point. At first glance on Saturday night, this incarnation of the Arkestra allowed style to take the lead. But as the night moved on, the substance and soul of Sun Ra's music came forth. Cloaked in their shining robes and space ritual headware, the members sang along in unison to "Space is the Place" while alternating players—once a drummer, later a horn player—moved from the band to dancing out front or in the crowd. This outreach of joy to the crowd invaded the band's set and underscored a bit of the youthful exuberance created in Sun Ra's upbringing in Birmingham, Ala.
His work, with its reputation for themes of outer space and reaches for musical outer limits, still retains its soul with this traveling group. As Allen told me of first hearing Sun Ra rehearse in his old ballroom, "When I heard that, there was something about that sound, I just said, 'That's it!' It was swingin', but it had that deep, dark sound." The people in Page dancing freely with band members in the aisles retained that spirit, too.