By Nick Stropko
Last Saturday, I stood on the balcony of Johnny Brenda’s, watching a pretty unusual setup—a couple dozen old men, adorned in sequin-covered outfits and strange hats, setting up chairs, music stands, and sheet music on the cramped stage. As they continued to stick chairs in an increasingly claustrophobic-looking formation, musicians actually began setting up beside the stage, lining the floor with percussionists, the keyboard player, and a dancer. Yeah, it was pretty bizarre. However, it was also a fitting tribute to Sun Ra, the namesake and deceased former leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra.
See a full gallery of pictures after the break
For those not aware, Sun Ra was a boundary-pushing jazz musician known as much for his music as for his “cosmic philosophy.” Sun Ra claimed to be born on Saturn and said that he was not human, but instead part of the “Angel Race.” Batshit cosmic lore aside, Sun Ra was a prolific musician, dipping his toes in just about every subgenre of jazz. He was one of the first musicians to use electronic keyboards and synthesizers, proving himself a pioneer in both free jazz and electronic music. He was also known for his grand live performances—which brings us back to Johnny Brenda’s.
Sun Ra died in 1993, leaving a legacy of consistent innovation. The Arkestra, his band, has continued to perform and celebrate its late leader’s cosmic sounds. Following a brief tenure by tenor saxophonist John Glimore, alto saxophonist Marshall Allen has led Sun Ra’s Arkestra since 1995. The Arkestra’s sold out May 25th performance at Johnny Brenda’s (put on by Philadelphia’s Ars Nova Workshop) marked both Allen’s 89th birthday and the Arkestra’s first appearance at the Fishtown venue in three years. After a tight opening set by Mike Reed’s People Places, which featured excellent interplay between the two saxophones and a firmly in-sync rhythm section, the Arkestra went about installing their sprawling stage set-up.
So, as sequins reflected the venue’s lights and the stage overflowed with musicians, the Arkestra began playing. The jazz that evening can’t quite be tagged as any particular subgenre—it was cacophonous, but with a distinct sense of melody (Sun Ra famously asserted that he did not play free music, stating, “I have to make sure that every note, every nuance, is correct”). The band could hearken back to big ensembles of the ’50s while immediately following with a noisy sax solo. There were jazz standards, and there was chanting (“The world was in darkness / And darkness was ignorance / Along came Ra”).
The evening’s music may have reflected a wide variety of jazz, but it was expertly held together by bandleader Marshall Allen. Despite his 89 years of age, Allen proved to be a commanding figure, conducting his fellow musicians, creating the set list on the fly, and playing the saxophone. Watching him was incredible—he stood for the entire show, carrying himself with a sense of purpose and authority. Perhaps Sun Ra shared some interstellar secrets of longevity with Allen before his passing, because I am still stunned by the bandleader’s vigor that night.
Above all, the performance was an absolute blast. The evening had a sense of freewheeling fun to it—even the musicians didn’t seem to know what was coming next, but were clearly having a great time while still ably keeping up with Allen’s orchestrations. Sure, the performance had a couple rough spots, but no one took themselves too seriously anyway—these were, after all, a group of aging jazz musicians wearing shiny costumes and an array of silly hats. However, when the band clicked together amid the shifting musical landscape, it was a sight to behold, and a fitting tribute to the memory of Sun Ra.