The mid '80s were a good period for the Arkestra. Although Ronnie Boykins was no longer available for earthly gigs, many of the core members of Ra's ensemble — John Gilmore, Eloe Omoe, James Jackson, Marshall Allen, etc. — were in excellent form, and Ra himself seems to have been feeling good. The Arkestra's “Nuclear War” single had been released by the British Y label in late '82 (after Columbia Records passed on it) and turned into an oddball club hit over the next year, making Ra's music graspable by a whole new generation of young turds. Recommended Records had started distributing Saturn LPs in Europe, as well as pressing a couple themselves, so some of the sides that had been only legends previously were actually making their way into people's hands.
“The Arkestra's “Nuclear War” single had been released by the British Y label in late '82 (after Columbia Records passed on it) and turned into an oddball club hit over the next year, making Ra's music graspable by a whole new generation of young turds.”
This three hour, two part set by the Arkestra, performed at the Jazzgalerie in Nickelsdorf, Austria, in March '84 is a great and typical example of the band's club gigs around that time (although, sadly, June Tyson does not seem to have been able to make the trip). The three volume Greek set, Live at Praxis, had been cut a couple of weeks earlier on the same European tour. Recorded in a theater, those albums offer a similarly-canted mix of improvisations, originals and cover tunes, but it's instructive to hear that nearly half the Austrian set list is different, and also to note the somewhat more intimate feel of this gig. There's a bit more crooning, a bit less chanting (although this is not to infer that chanting is in short supply). But it makes drinking cocktails and eating hors d'oeuvres easier, I suppose.
The recording itself appears to be an audience tape. I'd thought it might not be, but there's what appears to be a tape-flip-gap in one spot, and some close-up conversational chatter that nearly threw me into a flashback regarding the Velvets' Live at Max's LP there for an instant. Harder to imagine it's sourced from the soundboard, given those facts, but the sound quality is generally nice. So whoever did the deed had good equipment.
“...the saxes tear into a ferocious splat-battle in which everyone wins. There must have been some strong catnip available backstage during the break, since the roar is quite extraordinary.”
The first set opens with an extended section of string and percussion interplay with a heavy West African feel. May we call it Gambian? Why not. After that they swing into a lovely set that splooges together an odd version of “Nuclear War” (lacking the wildly popular chant-along chorus of the original), with straight-but-explosive takes of Ellington's “Sophisticated Lady” and Henderson's “Day Dream” and a run-through of Armstrong's arrangement (more or less) of “Mack the Knife” (which I always felt was a low point of their program in those days). Towards the end of this set, things drop into very solid space mode, and that vibe carries over when the second half starts up.
After beginning with some solid percussion action, the saxes tear into a ferocious splat-battle in which everyone wins. There must have been some strong catnip available backstage during the break, since the roar is quite extraordinary. This drifts into solo piano for a while, with a beautifully insane cover of Monk's “Round Midnight” at its apex, before zwindling back into more fully charted waters. The band continues apace until the music heads spaceward and ecstatic again as the set ends. Must be about three hours later, and I'm willing to bet that a good time was had by all. It's unfortunate that June's missing. Her vocals really take some of these parts to an entirely different galaxy. Also there is a distinct lack of synth whackery. Ra is credited with playing one in the notes, but maybe it was a small borrowed one or something. Still, I've been listening to this thing in the car for a few days now and it actually makes my travel seem both smoother and (somehow) more adventurous. Outer Spaceways Inc, indeed.
“I've been listening to this thing in the car for a few days now and it actually makes my travel seem both smoother and (somehow) more adventurous. Outer Spaceways Inc, indeed.”
As I've written elsewhere, it's great that Marshall continues to lead an ongoing version of the Arkestra. Their music is still incredible and uplifting as can be. But there was always something very special about listening to and watching a musician who truly appeared to be from Saturn (boring biographical factoids be damned). It's been over 20 years since Ra's visit to our planet ended. But it seems as though his profile seems to grow a bit every year, and now that Michael Anderson and Irwin Chusid are working to get the Arkestra's full catalog straightened out and back into print in proper form, 2015 (one year after Ra's centennial) may well be the best for his fans in a while. In the meantime, this Nickelsdorf set is a great reminder of what a giant presence we lost back in '93. He sounds boss at the age of 70. Better than Mick Jagger? Don't make me puke. Please.