Review: Sun Ra Arkestra @ The Night Cat

19 June 2018

This review is part of our coverage of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival.

On first arrival the room felt vacuous, the venue spacious and the stage empty. The instruments sat visible and still, yet to be awoken. An energy twinkled as the crowd slowly filtered in. It swirled above, just under the floating lanterns, a whisper of what was to unfold.

Adorned in regal garments, the Sun Ra Arkestra sashayed onto the circular stage, looking out into the unknown, to the cosmic energies of the Night Cat’s red glow. The crowd immediately directed all attention at them, smiling and nodding as though balance was now restored. The proceeding two-hour set maintained this equilibrium, a mastery of control.

Under the direction of 94-year-old Marshall Allen, the Arkestra was respectful yet contrary, cohesive yet spontaneous—a bundle of oppositions. Sun Ra was the master and creator of an ethereal world where such oppositions play out. He came from the galaxies and was born on Saturn. His music was a passage to this cosmic existence. Ra’s disciples have maintained this passage; their space jazz incorporates touches of ragtime, big band, swing, bebop and free jazz. It is original and non-conformist, an ode to being different.

The sprawling collective of artists alternated between their instruments with ease, at times the set felt like an extended jam session, a hypnotic haze of cosmic sounds and energies. Tara Middleton’s vocals shone bright from the side of the stage, she stood as an aura of reality, almost a centre of gravity. By the second hour of the set, the theatrics of the band were in full swing, cartwheels across the stage cascaded into an ‘in crowd’ jam. The Arkestra weaved in and out of the stunned and elated audience.

The Sun Ra Arkestra devoured all space and time, their set was a capsule of life beyond everyday existence—it brought with it a sense of relief, clarity and inspiration. For a brief moment, we were all celestial beings.

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