Original Sun Ra member and current bandleader, Marshall Allen. Image credit: Richard Dodson. Source: Supplied
Iconic US jazz band, the Sun Ra Arkestra, has occupied a truly cosmic space in the international jazz scene for more than half a century.
Their enigmatic founder, Sun Ra himself, "returned to Saturn" two decades ago, from whence he claimed to have come. Following his own cosmic philosophy, and taking many fellow musicians and fans with him, he maintained that "I am of another dimension. I am on this planet because people need me."
Standing room filled quickly at the Forum as a broad cross section of Melbourne jazz fans came together for this one-night-only performance. The inner city cool demographic rubbed elbows with grandads in white collared shirts, who in turn brought their grandchildren to continue a long tradition of a joyous love of rambling jazz sounds.
Those who came expecting Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald - style crooning would have been shocked and largely disappointed. Mlle Fitzgerald's Somebody to Watch Over Me is a world away from the Sun Ra Arkestra's unique brand of jazz, unless she was watching over shiny Ancient Egyptian-like aliens dressed in gold, red and green Christmas wrap from Saturn.
Knoell Scott: alto sax, voice, percussion and some time space dancer. Image credit: Richard Dodson. Source: Supplied.
The main event kicked off with the self-explanatory and highly catchy number, It's All Planetary. The most in-depth explanation given of any number was the introduction to Space is the Place: "Sun Ra has always been concerned with Space. Because Space is the Place." Of course.
My fellow concert-goer and I had a spirited debate as to whether the occasional random wanderings of the musical direction were expertly staged or accidents of improvisation.
I hold to my opinion that, while obviously rehearsed and planned, the night's performance was fuelled largely by a collective consciousness born of years of experience and that, once or twice, it got a little lost. Not that it mattered: it was all part of the fun.
Periodically steered by Marshall Allen, original band member and current leader, the musical numbers were held together and propelled by an irresistible, highly contagious and deep-seated love and respect for a wide range of music loosely categorised as "jazz". There were no celebrities on stage; these crazy, kooky and incredibly talented musicians were there, first and foremost, to create and share their beats and tones.
Michael Ray: trumpet, voice and "Intergalactic Research Tone Scientist". Image credit: Richard Dodson. Source: Supplied.
The crowd was swept away on an undulating ocean of sound punctuated by sharp, staccato brass notes. Should the Arkestra deviate too closely towards normality and slip into a pseudo-trad. jazz style, their cosmic leader, Allen, put a stop to it by cracking out his trademark E.V.I. (Electronic Valve Instrument) and sending the melodic line off onto an interplanetary adventure.
Weird and wonderful sounds were coaxed from traditional jazz instruments. Sometimes Allen played his saxophone and sometimes he spoke to it and strummed it like a guitar.
It was hard to know whether to laugh along, applaud or dance. An energetic octogenerian near us chose the latter and shook the floor with her gusty moves.
Refreshing, original and certainly out of this world, the Sun Ra Arkestra's performance at the Forum Melbourne for the Summer Sessions of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival was a joyous and entirely unforgettable experience.