Thirteen band members wind their way on stage in spangled costumes and headwear as the statues of Forum Theatre’s iconic indoor garden casually look on. A lively piano keeps time as the musicians take their places. Then, a riotous explosion of noise as the band launch into Interplanetary Music. We are transplanted into the universe of Sun Ra. MC/trumpet player Michael Ray welcomes us by promising “Tonight’s going to be off the chain!” before explaining this is the Arkestra’s 100th anniversary, since their journey started with the birth of original band leader Sun Ra. Since Sun Ra’s departure from earth in 1993, the band have continued to play under band leader and saxophonist Marshall Allen.
Tonight, resplendent in red-sequinned gown and cap, it is clear that Allen’s presence is commanding. Band members are sensitive to his every gesture: a fist thrust into the air brings forth a cacophony of trumpet and saxophone, while its return to his side prompts the percussionists to give it their all. Allen himself plays the sax in a strong and unorthodox style, summoning sounds of unrestrained joy from his instrument. His use of an EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument) adds something otherworldly to the compositions, particularly during Space Is The Place where it bounces off the brass section to create a wonderfully disorienting sound.
Literally bouncing around the stage is alto saxophonist Knoel Scott, who abruptly throws off his purple sequins and begins cartwheeling, dancing and posing for the crowd. This leads to a shimmying two-step on the other side of the stage between Allen and singer Tara Middleton as the band begin jazz classic Sometimes I’m Happy (Sometimes I’m Blue). The Arkestra moves easily through swing, big band numbers, haunting double bass solos and mind-wandering free jazz. There is an obvious respect and dynamism amongst the band members, who delight in each other’s solos and onstage antics. Off stage, as three of the musicians wander under the starry Forum sky during Space Is The Place, this delight is shared by the crowd.
The set draws to a close after a run-through of career gems Rocket Number Nine, Love In Outer Space and Enlightenment. The orange lights give the musicians a burnished quality that makes it seem possible they will all last forever. One by one they leave the stage but the beat goes on. Finally, only Marshall Allen remains, playing one last note on his EVI that sounds like a spaceship taking off. So long, Sun Ra.
This review was originally published in The Music magazine