Live at the Hackney Empire may be the definitive latter-day Sun Ra recording for a couple of reasons. First, it's a full two-and-a-half hour concert on two CDs, so you get the actual flow Sun Ra programmed into his performance to showcase the different musical facets of the Arkestra -- swirling cosmic outbursts, swing-era big band, vocal chants rooted in Africa by way of Saturn. (Amazingly, there's hardly any duplication of material from the concert the night before with a dozen-odd French symphony musicians that Leo released as Pleiades).
Second is the presence of guest players (or Arkestra members for the tour) like Charles Davis, with his robust baritone sax, India Cooke's high-flying violin, and Talvin Singh's tablas in the percussion section. That means new voices who definitely make their presence felt, so bingo, it's already not just another Sun Ra release.
The space-age atonal outbursts are mostly front-loaded on the three long opening pieces. As Astro-Black fades in over drums, Davis and Cooke immediately take impressive solo spins, and the crowd roars at the end of 18 minutes that sure don't feel like it. "Other Voices" quickly ventures into abstract textural zones and it calls to mind how cinemagraphic, how full of soundtrack colors, Sun Ra's music can be. Davis' baritone slashes through and Michael Ray's trumpet flashes over the top, the Ra tosses some space-sonic keyboard discords and his peaceful piano transitions into "Planet Earth Day." Back at the movies again, the group is gathering momentum with thundering drums and big band stylings before Marshall Allen goes stratospheric and the lurching riff behemoth subsides behind Kash Killion's cello.
"Hocus Pocus" is in-the-pocket big band romping with strong John Gilmore solos on clarinet and tenor bracketing Tyrone Hill's brassy trombone outing. Gilmore shoulders much of the solo load on "Blue Lou," a big band at the speed-of-sound outing with hot jazz drumming, before Singh and Elson Nascimento hit the final tablas-congas breakdown. "Face The Music" swings out in wonderfully joyous fashion with massed vocals before Noel Scott's great alto solo, and Davis galvanizes again -- his baritone's brawny tone really cuts a visceral swath through the essentially light swing of Sun Ra's Arkestra.
The string trio with guest bassist John Ore soloing fades into more cinematic big band to start the second disc. Davis is solid and Cooke shines, but the real story is the rock-solid, swinging support from the drummers. Sun Ra's drummers rarely receive any mention (quick, can you name one?) but Earl "Buster" Smith and Clifford Barbaro really drive the Arkestra all through Live at the Hackney Empire. The mood-lightening "East Of Sun" is almost cartoon music (that's not a criticism) but the lively, vibrant "Sunset On The Nile" falls victim to the perils of set flow with overextended vocal exchanges.
That changes as soon as Ra's piano leads into the blues ("Skimming and Loping") and the Arkestra takes off on a swing thing for serious dancing, the drums rockin' away behind the solos (and salvaging some slack spots); just listen to the Ra's pure rock & roll left hand heading into the home stretch. The Noble Sissle-Fletcher Henderson chestnut "Yeah Man!" brings swing era exuberance to the fore -- let's hear it for the drummers again -- before "We Travel The Spaceways" and "They'll Come Again" trail off into vocal chants as Sun Ra space-sounds out. The musical momentum dissipates, but it was probably a natural winding down for audience and the Arkestra alike after two-and-a-half hours.
Fans of Sun Ra's more adventurous explorations may find fault with him backing away from them to move back to his big band roots, and the slight versions of "Prelude To A Kiss" and "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" may provide fuel for the traditionalist critics who have long decried the Arkestra as a shuck 'n' jive freak show spectacle. It has its weak moments, but there's almost certainly no more complete document of what Sun Ra and his Arkestra sounded like as its leader's life wound down than on Live at the Hackney Empire. The liner notes say a projected U.K. television documentary on Sun Ra based on the concert fell through -- let's hope it sees the light of day sometime soon because this would be a performance worth seeing as well as hearing.