Sun Ra's Marshall Allen keeps Tiwa music and tales alive and kicking
Marshall Allen—best known as the band-leader and reedist of the Sun Ra Arkestra—is one of those performers who makes an indelible impression on people. This writer has a vivid memory from 2006—confirmed by reviewing video clips he captured back then—of seeing Allen at an outdoor Sun Ra Arkestra performance at Miller Plaza, as part of the Nightfall concert series, wearing a colorful and glittery outfit and headdress and playing a fierce sax solo that was both absolutely joyous and blistering, right in front of children dancing freely near the front of the stage.
Several more things struck this writer about that scene: the thought that he was not holding back at all and the idea that this unbridled energy could be so infectious—one can’t help but be affected by it.
Sun Ra himself—the visionary keyboardist and Arkestra founder—was a legendary figure in the fringes of jazz for his extremes; his music covered pointedly diverse ranges in the realm of jazz, going from his earlier, spirited big-band jazz material, to his more adventurous, out-there cosmic jazz from the ‘70s and beyond with electronic fusions and free-jazz excursions.
He was mind-bogglingly prolific, with over 200 releases to his name, and he was also wildly eccentric, maintaining that he was actually an alien being and inventing a magnificently costumed persona that drew from Egyptian and sci-fi sources.
Sun Ra passed away in 1993, but his influence is still deeply felt today, here and beyond; for example, Col. Bruce Hampton covered Sun Ra’s “Space Is the Place” at a concert in Chattanooga last year, and the music venue Saturn, which opened last year in Sun Ra’s hometown of Birmingham, Ala., was named as a tribute to Sun Ra and the planet he claimed to be his birthplace.
The Sun Ra Arkestra is still going strong, having played high-profile and forward-thinking festivals this year including the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville and the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.
The 92-year-old Allen has led the Arkestra since 1995, carrying the spirit of his longtime collaborator, with whom he started working in 1958, and he has also played with diverse, notable artists including Sonic Youth, NRBQ and Phish.
However, one thing about Allen that may not be widely known is that his longest running collaboration—not including with Sun Ra or Arkestra members—is with the musician and filmmaker James Harrar for Harrar’s project entitled Cinema Soloriens, which has been ongoing for nearly a quarter of a century.
The project concentrates on the collaborative aspects of a multi-media performance, striving to be much more than simply a group of musicians on stage playing over a video background. With personal, visual storytelling from Harrar and a quartet of musicians including Allen, Cinema Soloriens aims to reveal a complexity with such audio/video combinations that invites many levels of interpretation.
In addition to Allen on alto saxophone, flute, keyboard and EVI (electronic valve instrument—a sort of synth saxophone), Harrar plays tenor saxophone, reeds and bulbul tarang (a south Asian banjo) among other instruments, with the rhythm section of bassist Maxwell Boecker and percussionist Kenneth “Kenito” Murray.
Harrar draws from his Native American background and takes influence from daring and challenging filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage and Jack Smith, but his work also celebrates early cinema, providing a 21st century silent film experience with live music.
“The work contains dominant themes of ritual, spiritual states, sensuality, perception and nature to name a few,” said Harrar, in advance of the Sep. 3rd event at Barking Legs Theater. “Some of the performance elements in the show include me telling old Tiwa folktales in English and chanting in the Tiwa dialect.”
Harrar explained that the September performance might be the first time the Tiwa language has ever been spoken in Tennessee. “The Tiwa dialect is suffering from possible extinction,” said Harrar. “Little scholarly research has been done and fewer Tribal members speak it.”
“A learning center has been established in Isleta Pueblo which is promising for preservation,” said Harrar. “I am also sharing the language—lifeblood to any culture—with others as an attempt to reveal alternative ways of connecting and creating intimacy with the audience.”
Saturday, Sep. 3, 8 p.m.
Barking Legs Theater
1307 Dodds Ave.