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Sung Ra spectacle adds voices, costumes, and dancing to the Rakestar Arkestra

Rory Magill can't hide his excitement, as he prepares for the biggest and most impressive concert he's organized in a decade.

Rory Magill and Christine Duncan discuss the music before the Sung Ra rehearsal January 8 ©Brett Delmage, 2017On Sunday, January 22, Magill and the seven other instrumentalists in the Rakestar Arkestra will join the 35-voice Tone Cluster choir and vocalist Christine Duncan to create “Sung Ra: The Songs of Sun Ra”. They'll fill the Church of the Ascension in Ottawa East with costumes, fancy hats, dancing – and entertaining, full-bodied jazz which can jump from melodic to awe-inspiring

View photos from the January 8 rehearsal with Rakestar, Tone Cluster, and Christine Duncan

The concert is a tribute to the unique jazz composer and bandleader Sun Ra, who in the decades between the 50s and 80s created “cosmic jazz” with his own mythology. To his jazz roots he added elements of avant-garde classical music; he was a pioneer in using electronic keyboards; and he believed in the power of spectacle, with his Arkestra usually dressed in bright, flamboyant costumes, and occasionally including dancers or jugglers or stilt-walkers. That's the spirit Magill wants the January 22 show to have.

“Sun Ra's concerts were always festooned with amazing costumes and ornaments and so on, and this is theatrics as he would do it. It's full-dress this time."

It's a concert which Magill has wanted to present for years. He's been working intensely on it since last year – writing grant proposals, composing music, and inviting other musicians to participate. He received a Canada Council grant for the project last summer – “a huge morale boost” – along with support from the City of Ottawa and the Juno 2017 committee.

It combines two of his passions: the improvised instrumental jazz he performs with Rakestar and choral music. Magill is best known locally as a percussionist (particularly on drumset and xylophone), but “for the last probably 20 years, I've worked with choirs. I've written choral music. So I've been writing choir music and also writing free jazz and whatever you call it for Rakestar and other small groupings – but never bringing them together. And for a long time, I've dreamed of the opportunity to do that."

Everybody in the band agrees: it's the most fun when all of it can be entertaining.
– Rory Magill

The Rakestar Arkestra formed in 2000 to play from the Sun Ra songbook, plus original music inspired by Sun Ra. It includes some of Ottawa's best and most adventurous jazz musicians. They released an album in 2003 and performed at the Ottawa and Guelph Jazz Festivals. In 2007, they presented several shows in Ottawa called “Worlds Collide” along with a Balinese Gamelan and a West African drum and dance group.

“It was a giant mash-up and it was huge, ridiculous, chaotic fun. We took turns playing and then we played in combinations and then finally all of us played together. There were about 35 performers and dancers there on stage, combining the music of Bali and the music of Ghana and the music of Sun Ra. That was pretty exciting, but also an enormous amount of work – so long lapses after that.”

More recently, Magill started working with Kurt Ala-Kantti, the artistic director of the Tone Cluster choir. He wrote music for several of the choirs which Ala-Kantti directs, and played percussion with Tone Cluster last fall.

The Rakestar Arkestra in full flight ©Brett Delmage, 2017“Last year, Tone Cluster did a piece of mine called “Ratatouille”. The idea of the piece was contrapuntal singing in three languages – and it was the ingredients of the dish. The voices were divided into English, French, and Italian, and they would sing “aubergine” for the French and “melanzana”, which is the most beautiful word ever, that's the Italian for eggplant. And so I wrote melodies for the ingredients of Ratatouille and they did that last year in performance. It was a thrill for me to hear them do it, and I thought they did a great job. It was challenging for them, and they didn't all enjoy it, necessarily, because it was a bit slippery and hard to … and it was totally a cappella. Just voice, no piano.”

Tone Cluster describes itself as “quite a queer choir”. Since 1994, this 35-voice mixed choir has created a queer-positive environment where gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans-gender singers and their allies can be themselves while striving for choral excellence. It performs a wide range of music, ranging from classical to jazz to pop.

“I can't say that I know of another choir that could do this [show],” Magill said. “Primarily the spirit and the attitude more than anything, because most choirs like to stick to fairly mainstream repertoire, or classical repertoire.”

Ala-Kantti said the choir, which he's directed for the last five years, is “pretty wacky and willing to try anything, which is great, especially for this, because there's a lot of different things they have to try. And we do lots of different styles of music. They're just a very open and accepting and very musical bunch.”

Tone Cluster is also the keenest choir he's conducted: “They work really hard at their craft. They have rehearsals between my rehearsals – without me. I don't have another choir that goes to quite the extent that each section has three rehearsals. They really want to know what they're doing.

Another woman said to me, 'You told us that we could dress up – I forget how I put it, flamboyant or extravagant – and I have a unicorn outfit and it's got a horn and a tail and hooves.' And I just about fell onto the floor. I thought this is incredible! So I think there will be a unicorn in the choir, but I think there will also be a lot of colourful costumes. The band wears hats, typically.
–Rory Magill

Magill said that Sun Ra “had to fight being different all his life. But he was undeterred ultimately. He suffered at times because he was fairly different, so there's something very positive about the fact that Tone Cluster is so openly proudly LGBTQ and identifies that way and wants to represent that way [that] is a perfectly good fit. And I have to say that there's a certain flamboyance that may be associated with that orientation that is fantastic, and the costumes are going to be spectacular.”

From the beginning, he said, he told the choir that “if you feel like dancing, at any point, don't hold back. Choirs typically stand fairly still or do coordinated movements or something, but there's going to be some ridiculous, slightly outrageous dancing. There's one woman who just can't stop moving which is fantastic.”

“And another woman said to me, 'You told us that we could dress up – I forget how I put it, flamboyant or extravagant – and I have a unicorn outfit and it's got a horn and a tail and hooves.' And I just about fell onto the floor. I thought this is incredible! So I think there will be a unicorn in the choir, but I think there will also be a lot of colourful costumes. The band wears hats, typically.”

When the Canada Council grant for “Sung Ra” came through, Magill called Ala-Kantti right away. “I said, 'Hey, do you guys want to do this?' And Kurt is terrific! He's up for anything. He finds unusual opportunities. To my delight, this fall my wife, Kathy Armstrong, and I went out and did a workshop with Tone Cluster at their annual retreat, and discovered that the choir had just blossomed this year. Even over last year, it sounds even better... the spirit of the group is very positive, really strong. The spirit is an enormously important thing.”

“And it happens coincidentally that the chemistry of Rakestar right now is stronger than it's ever been. It's a very definitive eight-piece group. Every character and every instrument has a significant place and everybody works incredibly well together.”

John Sobol and David Broscoe (baritone saxes), Mike Essoudry (drums) ©Brett Delmage, 2017Rakestar includes four saxophonists (Rob Frayne, Linsey Wellman, David Broscoe, and John Sobol), Magill on xylophone, Mike Essoudry on drums and clarinet, and Scott Warren on percussion, loops, and “mystery electronic wizardry”. A particularly important base to their sound is Don Cummings on Hammond A organ. For this concert, Cummings' organ will be counterpointed by the choir's Vincent Mar on church organ/electric piano. “So we have two keyboards which is really exciting. Piano and organ – I love that! We've never done that before,” Magill said.

The final ingredient in the concert mix is Toronto vocalist and conductor Christine Duncan, with her system of improvising conduction. Over the last decade, Duncan has developed a system of gestures to cue choirs into creating improvised music and sound-singing, and used this with different incarnations of her Element Choir and other choirs across Canada. The singers don't have a score; instead, they follow and interpret her conducting gestures in real-time.

Read the interview with Christine Duncan about her innovative approach to conducting choirs

Magill had previously worked with Duncan in 2013, when Scott Thomson presented his “Arcade Air” project at Ottawa City Hall as part of Chamberfest. Duncan created an Ottawa version of her Element Choir for the festival and they sang from the upper levels of City Hall, standing at the windows overlooking the interior atrium. Duncan stood with half the choir on one side of the atrium, while Magill was with the other half on the opposite side – and he reflected back her conduction gestures so that all the singers could see them.

“That was a magic experience for me! That was really fantastic because I got to just focus as much as I could on her, and mimic her, and channel her excellent energies and bounce it back to other people and feel all of their amazing energy come back to me. Plus I'd never conducted, but that was a crash course and super-fun for me,” Magill said.

The first time Magill met Duncan, he said, was in 2002 when Rakestar played the Rex in Toronto on its way to the Guelph Jazz Festival. “Rob Frayne, who's known Christine forever, he said, 'Oh listen, man, there's this woman singer – she's got to sit in with us.' So I said, 'Absolutely', and when I saw her dressed outrageously – she had like a floor-length knit dress and this sort of knitted top hat on, just some crazy concoction, and she was … amazing! She was doing completely improv, abstract sound-singing with the band. It killed. So that's been in my head for the last 15 years – somehow we have to work with this woman again.

“She's a fully seasoned jazz singer, blues singer, gospel singer. She's been through all of that stuff. She's very powerful at all of those things. She will be presenting as an outer space jazz vocalist, let's say, with the band.”

For this concert, Duncan will be working primarily in the context of composed pieces, but will use her system of conduction for choral passages. “She is quite expert at that and she has a whole repertoire of cues and sounds for people to make and she's one of the most adept, spontaneous music-makers I've ever met, so she can jump into a situation and scope things out, and then start to elicit reactions from the choir.” attended the first rehearsal between Rakestar, Duncan, and a subset of the choir on January 8, where they had their first run-throughs of several of the pieces for the concert. The biggest psychological hurdle: no written music for the choir.

Christine Duncan (l) elicits sounds from the Tone Cluster singers ©Brett Delmage, 2017Ten choir members, including Ala-Kantti, were there to meet Duncan – for the first of four rehearsals she'll have with the choir. Ala-Kantti said he thought it went very well, despite the challenges of “getting used to a new conductor and singing without music in front of you. I could see them panicking a bit. But Christine's just very open and accepting in allowing them to do things, encouraging them to do things – and I think they're just eating it up.”

“It was a complete cold introduction, basically,” Duncan said. “I'm just getting them to do these things and try this stuff out. So I have to be even more on my sort of performance/inspiring role to get people to feel OK, to just go there and there's no big deal. It's just fun and we're just going to explore together and see what happens.”

To put the choir at their ease, she used “a lot of humour. I can be a bit self-deprecating. I do stuff. I put things out there. I demonstrate the vocal stuff. I ask their permission to get them to come along with me and try stuff out.”

With Duncan conducting, they began by singing Sun Ra's “We Travel the Spaceways” together with Rakestar. Then she led the choir in trying out different harmonies and approaches on ballads and lullabies, and singing call-and-response chants. They created ambient soundscapes of water and air sounds, and played an “imitation game” where the singers repeated whatever Duncan sang.

For the Sun Ra piece, “Ancient Ethiopia”, Duncan had the singers make animal noises – like goats or cows or sheep – to create a soundscape of a Middle Eastern marketplace. It was “just an initial introduction to the idea”, she said. “I'll probably spend a little bit more time just trying to craft something that maybe has a little bit of nuance to it instead of just a bunch of people baa-ing like sheep and yelling [laughs] – which is what I told them to do because well, we've got to start somewhere so let's just make a bunch of noise. And they were super-game and super-cool and it was really fun! So now we can reel things maybe a step or two and find a little bit of subtlety perhaps.”

Finally, Duncan initially “preached” a poem, and the singers followed with a joyous improvised gospel-like chorus, with the small audience joining in too.

“Rory had the idea that I could preach a sermon with that. And then he said, we're going to go into the next part of the piece and here's another set of words that you can use to improvise with as the end of the piece. So for me, the sermon turned into the exhortation which was the first part, with me using the next chunk of words, and then the choir comes in at the end of it and then I just decided, 'OK, if we're going to go to church, let's all go to church!' And so I got the audience involved.”

I rehearsed with the choir a few weeks ago and we went over “We Travel the Spaceways” which has a fantastic, epic refrain that's quite simple and easy to learn and glorious. I got chills – sometimes the band will sing it when we play that tune and it has a certain humble charm when we do that. But when you invite a choir to just take their harmonies where they want to take them and bring their voices and you have a strong soprano section outlined by baritones and basses, it sounds pretty amazing.
– Rory Magill

As they left the rehearsal, choir members talked about the challenge of the new musical experience – with smiles consistently on their faces.

Magill said the show will include a good mix of Sun Ra compositions – the most successful of what Rakestar has played at recent shows – plus compositions by himself and by Rakestar saxophonist David Broscoe, written in the Sun Ra spirit. Each of the pieces, however, will include “wide-open” improvised sections, and there will be many places for Duncan to lead Tone Cluster into unexpected music-making.

Most of the pieces will have a choral element, he said. “I rehearsed with the choir a few weeks ago and we went over “We Travel the Spaceways” which has a fantastic, epic refrain that's quite simple and easy to learn and glorious. I got chills – sometimes the band will sing it when we play that tune and it has a certain humble charm when we do that. But when you invite a choir to just take their harmonies where they want to take them and bring their voices and you have a strong soprano section outlined by baritones and basses, it sounds pretty amazing.”

After the Tone Cluster's first performance of “Ratatouille”, Magill added a piano part for the choir's accompanying pianist, Vincent Mar, “to ground it and to give them their cues, give them their pitches and their melodies, with little piano introductions which would play their melodies for them.” He's reworked the piece again for this concert, and it's now called “Ready”. It's “sort of jazzy, it's not out there as much as Sun Ra, although many of his tunes were mainstream-sounding until they took them out.”

The piece is a tribute to Sun Ra, and includes words from one of his poems: “Music is a plane of wisdom”. “It tells a very brief story of the life and work of Sun Ra through the lyrics and the music is a variety of styles of jazz.”

Another piece which Magill wrote, called “Nothing”, is like a Kyrie-style prayer with church organ accompaniment. The words were excerpted from another Sun Ra poem. “I culled just a small amount of the words for the singers to sing and I wrote the music, and it's just descending small type intervals which is a structure that he used, and the words are 'Nothing, nothing, I have nothing, Endless pleasure, nothing, nothing, it is all mine.' He put it so beautifully in the poem about how you can have vast amounts of nothing – and 'It's all mine! And all this nothing is mine!'”

“We'll follow it immediately with a piece that Sun Ra wrote called “Atlantis” that similarly is a bunch of tight intervals descending, falling into the sea like [the continent of] Atlantis. It certainly ties together.”

Another original, “Zinc”, is by David Broscoe. “It's very atmospheric, generally inspired by Ra. It's inspired by everything else that we do and listen to, but Sun Ra sort of percolates through our work all the time.”

“I think we're going to cover a lot of bases because it is really fun. We're going for maximum dynamic range, and it's going to get very quiet and it might get a little loud once or twice in [The Church of the] Ascension. There will be some stuff that's heavily-groove-oriented and some stuff that is more exploratory and a little bit more abstract. It's good to wander off into the ether occasionally, and that will happen – we will take some chances and go exploring – but always to be able to bring it back, because it's a tension and release dynamic that is exciting in the best music, I think. When you get a little somewhere almost scary, and then suddenly you're in a very sublime spot in the music that makes it all worthwhile.”

“But everybody in the band agrees: it's the most fun when all of it can be entertaining. And Sun Ra was amazing for that. We're channeling Sun Ra's spirit for everyone to put across as much energy and spirit through the music as possible."

    – Alayne McGregor

Sung Ra will be presented at the Church of the Ascension, 253 Echo Drive (just south and east of the Pretoria Bridge), on Sunday, January 22 at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $20 at the door.

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