June 2006

The Sun Ra Arkestra
Presented by Gary Topp
June 8 – 11, 2006 Lula Lounge Toronto
Space Is The Place
by Tom Sekowski with photos by Roger Humbert
Thing about a Sun Ra Arkestra concert is that there is nothing like it anywhere. If you figure in the costumes (all members don flashy space outfits), the chants, their constant references to space itself, you’ve got yourself a wacky theatre entourage. Now, to be fair to the present Arkestra, I miss Sonny. In May 1993, when I found out from a friend of mine on the phone, while traveling through Europe that Sonny flew back to Saturn, I was more than sad. A state of depression had set in. That night in Zurich, as I watched Charles Gayle blow fervent lines, I cried. Gayle’s heated outbursts made me cry for the loss we suffered. I cried, as I feared the Arkestra would implode and simply disappear.

On Friday night, I finally got my chance to find those fears were absolutely unfounded. Under the masterful direction of Marshall Allen, Sonny’s legacy is well and alive. In fact, the Arkestra is as strong as it’s always been.

What does a Lula Lounge stage look like with thirteen Arkestra members fighting for space? Crowded, for one. Interesting thing is that no member ever let it be known that they’re short of space. If at any point, they felt their space was being intrusively stepped on, they would simply start a procession back and forth across the Lula omniverse. Arkestra is well known for its tight brass section and a tight horn section. On saxophones, we were welcomed by Charles Davis, Noel Scott, Rey Scott and Yahya Abdul-Majid, while on trumpets we had Michael Ray and Fred Adams. I could swear I only saw one trombone player; question remains: was it Tyrone Hill or Gene Davis? (My mistake is I never bothered to ask.) Guitarist D. Hotep and bassist Juini Booth filled their roles well. Percussionists Art Jenkins and Elson Nascimento were all fire and brimstone, while the role of Luquman Ali as the Arkestra’s drummer, I felt was rather relegated to the background. Of course, the whole band was led by the very experienced, senior Arkestra member, saxophonist / flautist Marshall Allen.

Starting the show off with a traditional Arkestra march, the band walked onto the stage — singing a space chant, joyfully ranting and raving. Allen was in full control as he set the tone and mood for all the pieces. He controlled the breadth and height of each individual tune. Arkestra went from raunchy sing-alongs — the traditional “Space is the Place”, “Love in Outer Space” — to the balladry of “Enlightenment”. Whenever Michael Ray and Art Jenkins got up to sing, it would bring the world of Sun Ra inhabited 50’s Chicago fresh into our minds. These soulful tunes were real. All about escaping the reality of the human mind and taking thing outward into the universe. I was dumbfounded at how simple it all seemed, how warm it all was.

Sitting so close to the stage, I realized the music was loud, but never excessively so. Each member got their turn to solo and show off their overabundant skills. From the rambunctious horn section, on to the brass and percussive magic of various blocks and tubes — it all came together very nicely as a total package. In fact, even though there was so much control exerted by Allen over his band, the playing felt free and really natural.

Nothing in fact sounded as if it were forced in any way. Allen simply gave hushed instructions (stroke of a hand, an eye signal) to either slow down the tempo, to speed things up or to cut things short. Sadly, Allen himself never truly took off the ground, as his solos were kept to a minimum but when they appeared, they were direct, furious and screeching.

Most impressive were the signs of appreciation the Arkestra got from that night’s audience. I saw a number of people pair off in various corners of the room and start their own dance. Sure, we could’ve done without an obnoxious drunk fan who was after Allen’s job (buddy, next time realize the Arkestra already has a director in charge!) but otherwise, the signs of affection towards their music were numerous and quite loving.

The only thing I found lacking about Friday night’s performance was the turnout. Are 70 (maximum 80) people a good turnout at Lula on a Friday night? I think not! You can’t blame the promoter (Gary Topp) who did everything in his power to advertise the show (he went as far as sharing old Arkestra recordings on air at CKLN on the Wednesday prior to the concert in order to entice people to come out). In fact, as the show came to an end, one of the Arkestra members was heard encouraging people to bring 10 couple friends to their next performance. “We must all eat, drink and listen to music.” I thought to myself, we must also increase our powers as music consumers and one of the key ways to keep the Arkestra alive is by supporting their shows.

On a positive note then, Friday’s performance was a master feast for all senses. Sun Ra is smiling down from Saturn and laughing proud. Hand-clapping, head-waving, body-moving, mind-altering Arkestra ultimately achieved their main goal. For two and a half hours, they brought the cosmos an inch closer to our boring, earthly realities.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Tom Sekowski
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Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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