BY DAVID CORBO If you weren’t at 40th Street Park in University City on Saturday night, July 28th, you missed some of the best jazz on the planet earth as Philadelphia’s own Sun Ra Arkestra invited all willing travelers on a free trip to the intergalactic cosmic spaceways with a tour de force performance as part of the University City District’s 40th Street Summer Series. The Arkestra, under the spiritual and musical direction of saxophonist Marshall Allen, proved its mettle as they churned out a set that covered everything from Allen’s swinging nod to Fletcher Henderson, “Dreams Come True,” to the synthesized futuristic undulations of Sun Ra’s “Space Probe.”
Since pioneering band leader Sun Ra relocated from New York City in 1968, bringing his legendary Arkestra to live communally in Germantown, the band has had a long history of offering up its unparalleled afro-futuristic brand of avant garde supersonic jazz at free concerts in the area. Starting the early 1970’s and through the mid ‘80’s, it wasn’t unusual to see the outrageously costumed thirty piece band, complete with whirling dancers, and multiple trap players, perform gratis on the lawn of the Philadelphia Art Museum or hear them blow revved up improvisations in West Philly’s Clark Park.
It seemed like the band was always around, frequenting Grendel’s Lair on South Street and The Foxhole in University City. Sun Ra was so accessible, that his phone number was in the White Pages of the phone book. If you wanted to know where the band was going to fire it up next, you could give them a call and get an answer. Sun Ra passed in 1993, but the Arkestra is still on the intersteller journey that he began in 1958. It’s a rare treat to live in a city where a jazz band of this pedigree looks for nonpaying opportunities to sonically embrace its audience. This is the Arkestra’s third year at the 40th Street Summer Series and it was just like old times; no energy lost, no note unspoken, dancer’s dancing, everyone smiling, and the band snaking through the crowd blowing hard on “We Travel the Spaceways”, bringing SunRa’s musical vision out to the open sky to commune with its audience, just like it was meant to be.
French television broadcast from 1970. Totally badass.