ALL ABOUT JAZZ—NEW YORK
June 2009 11
A Universe of Achievement
by Marshall Allen
It feels good to be receiving this Lifetime Achievement Award at the Vision Festival this month. Whenever somebody achieves something worthy, it’s great to be recognized for it. The musicians who have received this award in the past include people that I have performed with, know and respect. I have received things like this before, like the Bluebird Award in Germany and some honorary mentions, but this award means a lot. The years have gone by so fast. It seems like yesterday when I first joined the Sun Ra Arkestra in 1958. It is amazing that 51 years have passed. When I stop and think about it, it is like... Damn! When Sun Ra was on the planet, I composed melodies. Every once in awhile, Sun Ra would play one of them. But I mostly put those compositions aside, since we all were focusing on what Sun Ra was doing. After Sun Ra left the planet, I decided to get those melodies together, the ones that everyone liked, and form a book of them. I have 100 or so of these; eight to ten are now in the current Sun Ra Arkestra book. And then there are the things where I redid arrangements on some of Sun Ra’s original charts. Sun Ra influenced me so much with the way he wrote - always making it better or different. And now I, like Sun Ra did, write charts for specific musicians. So, when I get the melody book out, I work on it, put it down for a while, get it back out and use lyrics as a base for developing some of these compositions. Art Jenkins [vocalist and percussionist in the Arkestra] has helped in writing lyrics for these melodies, Arkestra trumpeter Michael Ray has also written some lyrics and Joe Holley, who is a guitar player and friend of mine, has done two or three lyrics like “Millennium”, which is on the Arkestra’s latest CD titled Live At The Paradox on the In & Out label. I usually tell the lyricists what the chart is about and turn them loose to write the melody. My priorities are to keep the Sun Ra Arkestra music alive, the band playing and writing and arranging lead sheets and chords that can develop into future compositions. It is wonderful to have the Arkestra perform again at the Vision Festival. I just try to be creative, letting the spirit take over and play, letting it go and using the vibrations on whatever song it is to play the way I feel and to accompany the overall sound. I use sound to keep me balanced and to give others some good. I still enjoy playing and continue to find it a challenge. I don’t think about it, I just do it, just do the sound. Since 1995, when I started leading the Arkestra after John Gilmore left the planet, I had to get real busy, getting worked out how the Arkestra should play. On some arrangements, I added stuff, including space for freeform, which opens a door into my arrangements and makes it a little different every time we play it. Then I put my thing into each song every time we play it and that keeps things moving forward. I like what I’m doing now. I have to do it the way I have been taught by Sun Ra, since I don’t know everything and the thing is to find which way to go next. Then you can end up doing whatever without thinking about it too much. It was always a challenge to understand what Sun Ra wanted to get out of the members of the Arkestra. Being free, playing the right things at the right time were issues. If you are at a particular spot, you are there. You can think about that, the bandmembers know the music, but then you have to play what you know and what you don’t know. Some days you can be sharp, other days you have to coast. But, to get through all the rehearsals, you can’t worry too much. You take what you have and make the best of it and, above all, keep moving! Rehearsals continue to be important within the Arkestra. I had that drilled into me for 35 years by Sun Ra! You must rehearse to make the team coordinate and feel each other - to do it a certain way. We all do it together in the Arkestra, allowing for individual interpretation. The freeform and solos and the backgrounds are not charted out, so you must rehearse so that you can put the right stuff in each chart together as a band. And you got to keep up with it. Looking back at all of this, the Vision Festival Lifetime Achievement Award is nice for myself; it is so kind for them to acknowledge me. It is wonderful for this to be part of my mission to better the planet and the people through beautiful music. When we are able to give the audience one or two hours to forget their worries, it sure helps. And the music can help transform everyone to a higher plane of being and bring different vibrations that affect others and myself. Bring well being, give something to someone else so that they can get something out it. There is always happiness in the spirit of playing and we look forward to sharing the Arkestra sounds with the people at the Vision Festival.
For more information, visit elrarecords.com/ma.html.
Allen performs at Vision Festival Jun. 10th and will be honored with the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award. Allen is also at Zebulon Jun. 7th. Allen has led the Sun Ra Arkestra reed section for over 40 years and was a pioneer of the ‘60s avant garde jazz movement. Allen was one of the first jazz musicians to play traditional African music and has appeared with such diverse groups as Phish, Sonic Youth, NRBQ and Medeski Martin & Wood.