Published Dec 01, 2005The Sun Ra Arkestra's spaceship touched down in Toronto at the Lula Lounge in a blaze of sparkles, lights and a throw-down of practically the entire history of African-American music. In an admirable display of courage and coolness, producer Gary Topp brought the Ark into town for an unprecedented four nights, giving Toronto music heads an opportunity to witness a 14-piece ensemble go through its paces. This is the way music used to be featured in clubs: a band arrives, gets over the travel vibe, settles into their surroundings over the course of a few days and even brings the vibe of the host city into their evening shows. There is also the opportunity to showcase and experiment with new tunes and give every member of the group room to stretch out and really play. In terms of "jazz" and improvised music, this is important both for the audience as observers of an evolving art and the musicians entering their university on a nightly basis. The Arkestra's residency proved to be the perfect vehicle for this concept. The band, led by Marshall Allen, played two sets each night with tunes that ranged from the delirious '20s stomp of "Happy As The Day Is Long" to the infectious swing of "Limehouse Blues," all the way to the jaw-dropping free jazz meltdowns of "Somewhere There." There were plenty of sing- clap- and chant-alongs that got the audiences happy and moving, with lots of onstage joking and interstellar sermonising to keep us connected. In terms of individual musicianship, there's not enough space to list the standouts, as each one played their ass off, but one of the most satisfying sets featured Toronto musicians Doug Richardson blowing tough on tenor and Jeff Burke, who brought the house (and the Arkestra) to the next level with his inspired bassoon playing. After seeing Jeff around over the past few years, it's obvious that the Arkestra is his natural home. What stood out above all during those four nights were the commitment and joy the band displayed. These men not only knew the tradition backwards, as evidenced by the most authentic swing heard in a long time, but they also knew how to make the jump into light-speed with complex ensemble playing and tight group improvisation. It was a beautiful four nights on a happy planet with the spirit of the Sun Ra smiling affectionately through his amazing band of tone scientists.