Space was the place to be when the Sun Ra Arkestra played a sold out show at Johnny Brenda's in Fishtown on Saturday night on the occasion of alto sax player and bandleader Marshall Allen's 89th birthday.
He's the one in the psychedelic Shriner's wizard outfit in red on the left. For this gig, the Philadelphia band founded by Ra, who died (or 'ascended' in Ra speak) in 1993, and directed by Allen since 1995, contained over 20 musicians. You can see only 15 or so on stage, but that's only because that's all the tiny bandstand at JB's could hold. There were other drummers, keyboard players, percussionists and interpretive dancers at the foot of the stage during the show, which was presented by Ars Nova Workshop, and I'm pretty sure the woman who was keeping perfect time on cowbell at the bar right about the time I had a full beer spilled on me was with the band, too.
One of the things that's so tremendous about the Arkestra is the way they combine old school and new: The ensemble opened with "Smile," the Charlie Chaplin composition (that was Michael Jackson's favorite song, if you're keeping score at home), and all night long they split the difference between being a highly-disciplined, wondrously rhythmic, semi-traditoinal big band (albeit one dressed like black Mummers on acid) and a bold free jazz collective whose noise explorations are often outrageous but never pointlessly indulgent. As our man Steve Klinge put it, the Arkestra's music is 'cacophonous and composed."
With Allen attacking his instruments (in addition to sax, he also made a wonderful high pitched improvisational racket with his Electronic Valve Instrument) with the fervor of an avant gardist half his age, the band played for well over two hours, with never a dull moment in sight or sound.
Allen had a pile of about 200 pages of sheet music in a chair beside him, and as he chose to go from "Dream Comes True" to "Angels and Demons" (music by Marshall Allen, words by Sun Ra), the younger musicians were sometimes seen to be scurrying through their own pages with 'what are we playing now?' looks on their faces. The old heads in the band, like dressed-in-purple sax man Knoel Scott - who led the chant "The world was in darkness / And darkness was ignorance / Along came Ra!" - never looked the slightest bit confused. They were at one with the Ra. A wildly entertaining, mind blowingly musical evening.
Arkestra tour dates are here. Catch them in Warsaw on July 17, in Sardinia on August 31 or New York on October 5. Clips of "Along Came Ra" and of Allen going off on the E.V. I. at the Brooklyn Bowl in 2011 are below..