Sun Ra Arkestra, The Forge, London (11/08/23)

For all his soothsaying abilities, even the great Sun Ra himself might be surprised to see how the Arkestra he founded in the mid-1950s continues to thrive, some 30 years after his death. The group are now colourful festival fixtures and have in recent years been revived as a recording entity under the stewardship of the remarkable Marshall Allen, who’s been with them almost since the beginning.

Allen has not made the trip this time – he is 99, after all – but it’s good to see that there are already plans in place for his succession. In his absence, the Arkestra are conducted by saxophonist Knoel Scott (purple shirt, gold cape, occasional fez), a mere 67. Not that Scott really has to do much conducting, bar the occasional nod of the head towards his fellow musicians. Perhaps it’s Sun Ra’s omnipotent presence, but they move in unspoken harmony, as if guided by a serene, invisible hand.

At certain points in their history, the Arkestra have baffled audiences with their avant-garde approach; at others, they’ve seemed like a curious throwback. But today they sound fairly contemporary, even when playing tunes that date back half a century or more. Partly this is due to a new generation of jazz acts such as Kamasi Washington and Kokoroko taking the Arkestra’s cosmic big band sound as a template, but they have also sensibly chosen to keep the rhythms swinging and the melodies prominent.


The powerfully smooth vocals of Tara Middleton, present on almost every number they play, lend the music a warm neo-soul quality. The Arkestra may be travelling the spaceways and moving to celestial rhythms, but they do so calmly and beatifically – a spinning satellite rather than a burning comet.

There is plenty of fire, however, in their individual solos. From the back of the room, it’s impossible to see the full extent of the Arkestra, clustered together on The Forge’s small stage, so it’s a thrill when Cecil Brooks (red robes, trumpet) or Dave Hotep (sparkling knitted hat, red semi-hollow guitar) pop up from behind Scott’s head to put their own singular spin on things. Newest member Chris Hemingway (purple trilby, soprano sax) is the most mesmerising to watch, twisting in ever-tightening loops, while James Stewart (blue velvet crown, tenor sax and flute) brings a regal grace to proceedings.

A lively “Love In Outer Space” concludes with a percussive flurry and the ritual banging of a gong. “The World Is Not My Home” is a raucous finale, powered by parping trombones and deep baritone saxes, with Scott and Middleton rapping the lyrics back and forth: “I know I’m a member of the angel race / My home is somewhere else in outer space”.


They may be the earthly apostles of a dense Afrofuturist philosophy, but at heart the Arkestra are also a simple good-time band, determined to keep the party going in the cantina at the end of the universe. “We are Sun Ra’s band,” says Scott at the end, acknowledging their almighty creator. “We came from outer space to entertain you, I hope we’ve done so.” They have indeed – and they’ll probably still be doing so long after every mortal in this room is nothing but space dust.