Arkestra bandleader Marshall Allen and Toronto choreographer Bill Coleman
The cosmic visionary known as Sun Ra – who arrived on this planet in Birmingham, Alabama circa 1914 as Herman Blount, by way of Saturn, he said – returned to the stars almost two decades ago now. But the Arkestra named for him continues on, bringing their electronically augmented Afrofuturist hymns (free jazz before there was free jazz) to earthly audiences. (Having recorded 100+ albums, there’s a vast repertoire they can explore.) The Arkestra’s last Toronto performance was four years ago, in the incongruously opulent surroundings of the Palais Royale, an avant-garde-music event where liveried ushers mingled with jazz nerds beneath the fancy stage lights. The band members wore radiant celestial-priest garb; their collaborators in the Coleman Lemieux dance company wore little of anything; and at the end everyone moved together in the center of things, Sun Ra’s mantra of “space is the place” coming as a refrain.
The Sun Ra Arkestra will be back in Toronto on Saturday, and if their return gig’s venue lacks the swing-era glamour of that Palais (or the hefty cover charge), its community is a more permanent one. Tomorrow afternoon, under the direction of 88-year-old leader Marshall Allen, they’ll play a free concert at Daniels Spectrum, the Regent Park cultural centre. Space is the Place is described as “a theatrical performance, site-specific event and gathering rolled into one,” enlisting students from the Regent Park School of Music and Coleman Lemieux dancers to create a “lobby sound symphony.” Until the distant bodies in our solar system start hosting shows, this setting seems ideal: an impoverished, proud neighbourhood of immigrants and minorities, hosting musicians whose ancestors were forced into slave ships and who dreamed of liberation on spaceships.