October 2005

The Sun Ra Arkestra
Presented by Gary Topp
October 19, 2005 Lula Lounge Toronto
Organ-ized Kaos
by Stanley Fefferman with photos by Roger Humbert
14 musicians in ‘multicoloured sparkling sequined robes and outlandish hats’ conga up to the stage of Lula Lounge chanting, “The band from outer space, to entertain you here.” They look like priests of a dying planet in the intergalactic zone welcoming the away team of The Enterprise, but they sound like “one of the great bands in jazz history”.

Marshall Allen is the leader, no doubt about it. Honking and squeaking fiercely on his alto sax, the fingers of his right hand savaging the keys, his left hand waves, flaps, stabs and points at the band members. You can see the whites of every player’s eyes because they don’t take their eyes off Mr. Allen for a second, and though what he commands them to play seems like music stripped down to noise, you have to get it that they are making a sound painting.

Whatever. The next tune is “Limehouse Blues” composed by Phillip Braham in 1922, recorded by Louis Armstrong and the Dukes of Dixieland in 1924, and made popular by Fletcher Henderson’s swing band in 1931 (The story is Henderson hired Sun Ra over his own brother). This tune, the next one, “Big John Special” by Fletcher Henderson, and the next tune, Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” show the Arkestra’s roots, and leave no room for doubt they are impeccable musicians who’ve spent a lot of time on this planet, playing traditional music in a way that is out of this world.

How can I get across what the Arkestra is like? Imagine a square in the French Quarter of New Orleans before the Flood. Down one of the streets leading to the square comes a funeral band starting out wailing a slow, sad, drag. Around the next corner comes another funeral band going joyfully wild at the homecoming. Down the third street comes a circus marching band complete with tubas and clowns, and out of the fourth corner is a float on which sits a village band of African drummers working themselves into a wild-eyed trance. Put these sounds together with Marshall Allen dressed in his rainbow gown conducting the whole thing, and you have the picture.

Now add the singing which is really chanting, as in “Differ”; unearthly vibrations as in “Sunrise”; a whole raft of vigorous second-to-none brass and reed solos as in “Happy as the Day is Long”; plenty of first-rate big band orchestration; and musicians leaking off the stage to lead the audience in an intergalactic dance, and you’ll see why a critic wrote that the Sun Ra Arkestra is not “that quiet stuff in the background designed to facilitate upscale shopping, latte consumption and heartfelt discussion of diversified portfolio.”

This is the band

from outer space

to entertain you


We welcome your comments and feedback
Stanley Fefferman
• • • • • •
Roger Humbert
• •
The Live Music Report

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