Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Sun Ra's Arkestra Stokes the Flame in Their Hometown Before Blasting Off to Europe

Awash in color and a barely controlled vibrancy, Sun Ra's Arkestra took over the ground floor of Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art with an ensemble that barely fit on the large stage last Wednesday. Their surging, sprawling cosmic swing as usual defied convention and was fitting testimony that artists can succeed and thrive on their own terms while thumbing their noses at the commericial constraints of the music biz and have a blast doing it.

The 60 year struggle of the Arkestra has produced a wealth of rich recordings to savor and enjoy while offending jazz purists and classicists. Sun Ra's influence in modern music continues to loom large, a fact attested to by his Arkestra still going strong 16 years after his passing. Anchored by long time stalwarts Charles Davis, Danny Thompson, and Marshall Allen, who directs the band, the Arkestra paid tribute to both their swing band roots and New Orelans' dixieland, as well as their mentor, whose voice even made an appearance, speaking about, what else, outer space.

Marshall Allen deftly piloted his raucous crew who just refused to stay seated. Unlike a standard big band where the soloist stands and the audience applauds politely, the Arkestra's members stood at will and enmasse leaving a firey swirling web verging on chaos, deeply percussive and propulsive. (It seemed as if each member had a conga in front of him) The sound of joy was quite apparent, as the music was celebratory and extremely spirited. This was certainly an occasion to celebrate as the band was being honored in their adopted hometown of 40 years before leaving for an extensive tour of Europe, and Russia too. Highlights were many and all involved seemed to create a living, breathing creature pulsating with electricity and sparks flying everywhere. I really dug Marshall Allen's EVI (electronic valve instrument), a sorta bamboo flute with a can at the end which sounded like a cross between a slide whistle and a moog. Suprising, too, was the guitarist D. Hotep, who , when you could hear him, wrenched some distinctly unguitarlike tones out of his ax. It was great to see Juni Booth on bass too, as I had really enjoyed his work on McCoy Tyner's opus Enlightenment and Larry Young's seminal Lawrence of Newark.

Kudos are due to Philly's Institute of Contemporary Art, for not only hosting this event, but also for the remarkable Sun Ra exhibit running through August 2nd, Pathways to Unknown Worlds, a visual feast of Ra memorablia, art, video and musings, as well as a map of Saturn! Obviously Ra's and his Arkestra's contribution to music have been long standing and immense. It belongs both in a museum and on your car radio as well. The DIY ethos Ra created has been an inspiration to many, and the museum recognition of his contribution is both worthy and welcome. Not only are they sharing valuable artifacts, but also providing interactive Ra events on Wednesdays this month. Having the Ra Arkestra play in the same museum exhbiting much of his life's work was the icing on the cake--both art and music for all to savor. Further evidence of the ICA's level of excellence occurs this Saturday the 11th, when they host the Philadelphia Record Fair, simply an amazing show, and one not to be missed. You better believe, I will be there, and you should too, and check out the Ra exhibit as well. What a great way to spend a day!

When most of the Arkestra had left the stage, the band started an extended free jazz jam erupting in squealling,squawking and just plain noise, but it was a beautiful noise and a fitting coda to a fine evening. The splendor of the Arkestra's concert is even more special when you consider the advanced age of some of the originals members and I, for one, appreciate their efforts. Already Ra, Pat Patrick, and John Gilmore have long gone to the great beyond and are still missed. One can only hope this Arkestra can continue to share their otherworldy music with those on Earth for a long, long time.