Calling planet earth: A critic-turned-performer reflects on playing with Marshall Allenby Luke Stewart
On an evening when the celestial bodies of jazz were aligned in D.C. – with three superb jazz shows going on across the city – Marshall Allen truly took things out of this world Tuesday night with his experimental performance at Twins Jazz. And for this writer, the night was also a dream come true: With Allen’s bassist unable to make the gig, I played the entire night with the band.
Allen is an iconic figure in avant-garde jazz, having played with Sun Ra’s Arkestra almost for the band’s entire existence. (He’s now its leader.) Through unrelenting attacks on the various wind instruments he plays, Allen exhibits both fiery and introspective moods – and his sound is as resonant and enveloping as it is often atonal. As a bandleader, he spreads a contagious, cosmic energy.
So for me, as a student and performer of avant-garde music, playing with this man amounted to no less than the completion of a life’s goal. The show was also part of a new chapter for D.C.’s music culture that’s just beginning to be written: Never before had I seen such a crowd for an avant-garde music ensemble at the usually straight-ahead-centered club.
Allen was joined by fellow Sun Ra alum Danny Ray Thompson on baritone saxophone; Philly tenor sax titan Elliot Levin; and local D.C. talents Ed Ricart on guitar, Sam Lohman on drums and myself, Luke Stewart, on bass. Also, the revolutionary poet John Sinclair made a very special appearance.
Allen was certainly in top form throughout the night, leading the ensemble with his energetic nuance and conceptual focus. He seamlessly transitioned from alto saxophone to flute to the E.V.I. (Electronic Valve Instrument), playing each with the touch of a true master of emotional exploration.
Allen began the first set on the E.V.I., calling to the cosmos with sweeping sine-wave sounds reminiscent of Sun Ra’s synthesizer calling to Planet Earth. The performance then quickly moved into a full-on energetic assault with the entrance of Thompson and Levin on saxophones. Ricart filled in the sonic gaps, playing with an array of pedals and looping sounds to create a low drone. Lohman and I built slowly underneath, ecstatically raising the intensity level until, after about ten minutes, sudden silence took over.
Sinclair, all the while cheering from the front of the audience, soon joined the musical fray with a recitation of his poem for John Lennon. The group provided a strange swing as a background, as if an otherworldly creature had been created and was slowly learning how to walk. With each stanza, the creature seemed to creep forward as the energy rose ever so slightly. The end of Sinclair’s poem marked the emergence of this creature – whatever it was – in full form. Allen then captured and tamed the beast with his energetic focus, and helped it grow even stronger.
The ensemble settled into a classic, Arkestra-styled groove set by Thompson’s baritone sax, allowing Levin and Allen to blow freely over the established foundation. Eventually, Allen led the ensemble into deeper explorations of the groove, expanding it and stretching the feel, until it culminated in a furious barrage of sound.
The second set was much the same, but our band had gelled even further. Allen began with a solemn and beautiful solo, backed by bass and drums. As others entered, the spirit was lifted and expanded into a collage of colorful sound, demonstrating the group’s newly strengthened connection. After a tense silence in reaction to the settling spirit, the audience responded with thunderous applause.
Next, Allen instructed me to create a bounce swing to back dueling flute explorations by himself and Levin, while Thompson played the Brazilian Timbe drum. This finger-popping groove was occasion for another recitation by John Sinclair. Twins Jazz suddenly turned into an underground poetry club filled with bereted beatniks sipping double shots of Jameson, whispering, “Yeah, man … cool.” Well, all of that – but on another planet with Martian beats.
After a huge applause upon the poem’s completion and Sinclair’s departure from the stage, the audience stayed rapt by the groove. Levin then reclaimed his tenor while Thompson picked up his flute and joined Marshall. The groove never stopped, only expanded, as Lohman began a palpitating drum cadence. It was a perfect example of free groove.
As Allen recovered his alto sax, the group settled into yet another groove set by Thompson on baritone. I picked it up on bass and once it was locked in, the horn section began a march through the audience, picking up new recruits to OuterSpaceWays Incorporated. The rhythm trio was left on stage – Ed’s guitar, Sam’s drums and my bass – and began an onslaught of sound. There was a collective vibe that indicated how much we had quickly grown comfortable together. As the horn line returned, the level of energy reached its peak for the night, lasting for what seemed like hours but in reality was only a few minutes. Marshall’s attack on the alto, together with Elliot’s squeals and Danny’s bleats, took the ensemble into light speed as the sound traveled across the cosmos only to stop suddenly at the band leader’s whim.
The music that I got to be a part of on Tuesday night at Twins was something not heard in D.C. very often: an experimental performance that connected with the audience through musicality, collectivity and energy. It was certainly a special performance and something that I will not ever forget.