As the sun began to sink low on the recently wetted 40th Street Field in University City, the notes of another sun began to rise. The Sun Ra Arkestra gave a rare hometown appearance this past Saturday the 28th, as part of the ongoing 40th Street Summer Series. A brief sun shower during setup broke the heat of the evening, giving patrons some of the first real summer breezes of the year. Families and students alike lined up to cop their complimentary Rita's water ice, necks craned back towards the stage, knowing that soon, the Philly's favorite Saturanian angels would be descending.
The Sun Ra Arkestra have collectively lived in Germantown on and off since the late Sun Ra himself relocated to Philadelphia in 1968, and have continued to have a great presence in West and greater Philly. The Arkestra was lead under the conduction of saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Marshall Allen, who has lead the group since the death of former bandleader, John Gilmore in 1995. The often revolving-door-lineup of the Arkestra, not to mention the ascension of Sun Ra himself in 1993, has done little to hinder the group from continuing to carry on in the tradition of making free, innovative music.
Those more familiar with the Arkestra's legendary cosmic squeals that shook the jazz community throughout the '60's and '70's were in for a treat, as the Arkestra began to showcase just how wide their musical range was. From the infamous chants of "Space is the Place!" to doo-wop influenced ditties, the Arkestra ran the gamut of their other-earthly sounds. Allen had plenty of time to blow away on his alto and send his fingers a fly across his EVI without having to worry about acting strictly as a bandleader; after all, most of the musicians in the Arkestra have been playing with the group since the days of Ra himself. The majority of the setlist centered around the Arkestra's cool space swing, a rich period for the band that is so often unfortunately overlooked when considering the group's massive discography. Vocalist and saxophonist Knoel Scott's voice, honeyed with just the right amount of gravel, echoed clear across the field, melding with the big brass of the Arkestra's horn section, coaxing patrons from their lawn chairs to the grassy dance floor. After all, music that swings this hard just can't be listened to sitting down.
Towards the end of the set, the Arkestra began their ritual of getting off stage and going out amongst the audience to play. As I watched the sea of bodies become peppered with gold and red sequins and Egyptian headdresses, I couldn't help but swell with a bit of Philly pride; The Sun Ra Arkestra, a group that has spanned across five decades, dozens of LP's and even more members, is still just as much as they ever were, an ever changing, ever evolving group of musicians. Not one member of the Arkestra rests upon the laurels of having played with Ra, instead constantly searching within themselves to bring out that creative flair, continuing in the spirit of keeping things innovative and fresh, and above all, full of love. As Allen and the group said their farewells, and the last traces of sunlight dipped behind the skyline, storm clouds began to roll back around. Turns out all it took was a little Sun to break the heat after all.