En route to the show, the sweet smell of jazz cigarettes wafts through the air along the highwalk from Barbican tube station into the Barbican Centre itself, setting the scene for a concert whose path here has been as crazy as the man whose life and music it's honouring. If Sun Ra really is gazing down on us from some celestial orb, he'll surely be pleased with what he sees.
It's nearly seven decades since Herman Blount first decided to reinvent himself as 'Sun Ra: Jazz Man from Saturn', dress his band members up as extras from low-budget 1950s SF movies and started to draw links between the rhythm and blues bands of the 40s, prog rockers of the 1970s and everyone from trance DJs to MGMT today. Even he could never have guessed that his legacy would one day be feted in the most middle-class of London venues, thanks in part to a cloud of Volcanic ash that trapped the Arkestra in the UK and forced them upon the denizens of Dalston's Cafe Oto, who duly fell in love with them in the same way radical Detroit rockers MC5 and The Stooges had fifty years before. Really, not even the plots of one of Ra's own SF jazz/rock opera B-movies could have come close.
So here we are, ensconced in Barbican as part of Transcender, a two-week celebration of links between transcendental Asian music and the Western traditions that have embraced it. Ra, though he hailed from Birmingham, Alabama, looked to Egyptian and Nubian influences to take his jazz to the next level. As it's nearing the twentieth anniversary of this death (sorry, ascension to Saturn), it's left to 88-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen to lead the band with brilliant verve and energy. Honestly, 88-year-olds shouldn't be able to stand up, let alone perform nigh-on three hours of freeform jazz. The man's a miracle.
The Arkestra's strength is that they've pushed the boundaries of so many musical styles over the decades while at the same time just about staying inside them. Yes, this is jazz noodling extraordinaire, but by throwing themselves into the counterculture scene of the 1960s they managed to stride the rock/jazz divide, winning fans in both camps and influencing more than one generation who came after them.
Their performance tonight flits from music that wouldn't be out of place in a pre-war Hollywood speakeasy, to their 'Space is the Place' manifesto to the hippy hoards, to beats without which house music might not have sidled into trance and back again, literally pulling the audience along with them as they build towards an ending that sees them leading a conga-line through the audience. The sight of the straightest middle-aged white men you'll ever see dancing along after sequin-cloaked saxophonists old enough to be their fathers is not one to forget.
As the video installations of Mystic Lights adorn the walls, the influence this band have had really does warrant a few moments of reflection. The UFO Club of London's 60s scene landed directly from their blending of science fiction, craziness and experimental music. Interval DJ Hieroglyphic Being reminds an audience that doesn't really need to be reminded that what we expect DJs to do today has as much to do with this approach to music as it does to Spanish sunny island sweets, and everyone leaves warm in the knowledge that whatever divisions have existed between rock and jazz since the electric guitar first sneered at the brass section, their influences are irrevocably intertwined and always be. Thank you, God of Volcanos, for sending them to us.