For the past 15 years, Ottawa's Rake-star Arkestra has tried to capture the joy and passion of jazz iconoclast Sun Ra, with music which can range from the sublime to the chaotic.

Rory Magill at a previous IMOO concert ©Brett Delmage, 2010
Rory Magill at a previous IMOO concert ©Brett Delmage, 2010
After an extended hiatus, they're back – for an Improvising Musicians of Ottawa-Outaouais (IMOO) concert at the Raw Sugar Café on Sunday, and on February 28 at Mugshots.

“We're just doing because it's fun,” said Rake-star co-founder and percussionist Rory Magill. “Everybody loves to do it. Everyone in the group has an abiding love of Sun Ra and his music and his inspiration. So it's just an opportunity for everyone to get together and share that passion and explore ... it's a pretty free outfit, so there's tons of creative room for everybody to move.”

Magill said there has been “a shift in the sound” in the band to a combination of saxes and percussion, with a Hammond organ and baritone saxes providing the deep bass bottom of the music. But there's still lots of continuity: this edition of the group includes nine local musicians, five of whom have been with the band since it started in 2000 – and almost all of whom are very well known on the local jazz scene.

They primarily play Sun Ra's compositions, rearranged for their line-up, combined with some originals inspired by his music.

Sun Ra was a extraordinarily original musician, and a major figure in avant-garde jazz from the 50s to the early 90s. He started out in big bands in the 1940s, and was influenced by bebop, but then shifted into very much his own large-group sound with his Arkestra. 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 jugglers or stilt-walkers. He became obsessed with Egyptology and the possibility that Earth had been visited by travelers from outer space, and much of his music referenced those ideas.

It made for a very diverse body of music over the decades.

“Ra loved the tradition,” Magill said. “He worked for Fletcher Henderson as an arranger and rehearsal pianist for years and that was his foundation in jazz. So he loved that stuff and he admired Duke Ellington and he's got that side. We [Rake-star] have some earlier sounds before from things reflecting his earlier days. But a lot of the tunes that we do are probably 60s/70s. Later on, the last couple recordings, he was going back in a sense to traditional big band, with a twist obviously, but far more subtle than his totally out-there astro-infinity.”

Music in Sun Ra's own handwriting started the group

Rake-star began in 2000 after saxophonist David Broscoe obtained a “whole book of Sun Ra's hand-written lead sheets – copies of originals in Sun Ra's own hand – which was a delight for all of us,” Magill said. He brought them to groups he was playing with, including a trio called Rake with Magill and percussionist Jamie Gullikson. They were so excited by the music they decided to invite other musicians and expand the project into Rake-star.

The lead sheets are now more widely available on-line, Magill said, “but at the time when he got them, they were this hidden treasure. It was a real great find. They were a real inspiration for us. And to be able to look at how Sun Ra thinks on paper, and just even seeing it in his own hand, gives one more little clue to how he worked and thought.”

To be able to look at how Sun Ra thinks on paper, and just even seeing it in his own hand, gives one more little clue to how he worked and thought.
– Rory Magill

The sheets have continued to provide inspiration, with group members taking turns arranging the material for the different Rake-star lineups. “I have a giant dining room table right now covered with charts and I'm sorting through and I've done a bunch of arranging from those lead sheets into parts for different instruments, and folding in new ideas. We write original stuff but, from my point of view, right now it will be plenty enough just for us to tackle a bunch of Sun Ra material.”

At its peak, Rake-star had 14 or 15 members. At its last major concert, a joint show at the NAC Fourth Stage in 2009 with Gamelan Semara Winangun, it was down to six.

“But it was pretty spare – six is a small unit for this kind of stuff. You want a certain critical mass. So it was a compromise. When we recorded the CD [in 2003] with 15 players, we had three double basses. It was monstrous! It was just fantastic. It's so beautiful to have that much big wooden bottom to it. And great players, so that was super-fun. But it takes a lot of space and it takes a lot of time chiefly for organizing and trying to fit people's schedules.”

Hammond organ, saxes as the foundation, and percussion

In the current nine-musician line-up, Don Cummings' Hammond A organ is a completely new sound. “But he's such an exceptional player, it's exciting to move it in that direction getting the Hammond organ sound – which is something that Sun Ra never used, so it's nice as a distinction.”

But having four saxophonists (Broscoe, Linsey Wellman, John Sobol, and Rob Frayne) is very much in the Sun Ra tradition. “Sun Ra's Arkestra had a sax section really as its foundation in many ways. Lyrically, he would write everything for his sax section and he had very, very dedicated sax players who were with him for years and years. ... His sound was, for me, was just always the saxophone. Personally, I just love that sound so much! And I equate that with the Arkestra.”

Besides Gullikson and Magill, Scott Warren and Mike Essoudry will also play drums and percussion. Essoudry may also double on clarinet, Magill on xylophone and trombone, Warren on tapes and loops, and Frayne on synthesizer.

IMOO mostly improvised; Mugshots full-on

The two shows will be quite different, Magill said. The show on Sunday will be “in the spirit of IMOO” – mostly free improvisation. “We won't be running through tunes, per se, and we won't be doing a set list or anything like that. It will be very much inspired by the spirit and the songbook of Sun Ra, and we will probably use some charts, just as references for people for ideas towards the improvisation. But otherwise it will be just free.”

Rory Magill at a previous IMOO concert ©Brett Delmage, 2010
Rory Magill at a previous IMOO concert ©Brett Delmage, 2010
It was Gullikson's idea: “why not just start off with a totally free set, as a first outing? Which I think was a brilliant idea. Ironically he won't be here – he's in Indonesia right now.”

Sunday's show will also constrained somewhat by the tight space in Raw Sugar. Cummings will be on Moog synthesizer because his organ just won't fit there, and the other seven will bring minimal gear.

But the Mugshots show will be the full band, Magill said: “two full drumkits and the Hammond organ and the extras. And for that one, we will play a couple of sets of Sun Ra tunes and it will be full-on.”

Maybe hats?

Will that full-on show include costumes, like the original Arkestra?

Magill doubted that, but did acknowledge that David Broscoe “is the master of hats. He has come out for some shows with the most spectacular headgear.”

At one show at the Whipping Post, a small blues bar on Rideau Street, “which was a tiny club with a low ceiling, he had conjured up this amazing hat with a giant wire sculpture on top of his head. The wires were dancing very, very close to the low-hanging wires in the ceiling of the club – for a moment we thought there might be fireworks. So I can't say for Broscoe: anything could happen.”

"Antic, great, wonderful performances"

Magill was a teenager when he first encountered Sun Ra through a record from the mail-order Columbia Record Club. “I ordered it for five bucks and it was The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, which was one of his real prized treasures. And it just totally freaked me out. I had no idea. At 13, I didn't know what I was getting into.”

He got more into the music later, and, in fact, his favourite Sun Ra recording is from near the end of Ra's career: Blue Delight [A&M, 1989]. “It's one of those things where he's really revisiting earlier traditions and it's a lovely, delicate balance of his cosmic, astral explorations, just subtly infusing itself into a more traditional big band sound. I got that early on in my interest in Sun Ra and so that's a personal favourite.”

He also saw Sun Ra in concert with his Arkestra several times in Toronto.

“Really great stuff! It was just really inspiring. Antic, great, wonderful performances. It was just like a pageantry – it was really splendid. One show I remember all the players dressed in white shirts and black slacks and black ties and then giant pink chiffon robes that went over everything. The whole band was dressed this way, and then the second set started with one of the players would come on starting with a solo, and a second would come on, and they were all dressed in exactly the same outfits wearing green Dockers and a black leather jacket, and a fedora and sunglasses. By the time they were all out, it was just like a comic's convention.”

“And the music is equally vastly entertaining. And they swing their instruments and dance and sing through the audience and do a little little hop-step and so on. So they certainly were about having fun.”

After Sun Ra's death in 1993, the Arkestra continued under saxophonist Marshall Allen. Magill saw them at the Guelph Jazz Festival in 2001 – which inspired music for Rake-star.

“I drove back to Toronto after their concert, and a tune came into my head, an original tune. I was so thrilled: it just wrote itself, and by the time I got back to Toronto I wrote it down and blended it in with his [Sun Ra's] “We Travel the Spaceways”, which is his anthem. So we've done that before: folding original stuff in with Sun Ra tunes, and that worked pretty well, especially with layers.”

Freedom, complexity, and layers is Rake-star's approach

That's the approach the group aims for its music, he said: freedom, complexity, and layers. “We could have half the band playing one tune and half the band playing another tune, at the same time.”

The following year (2002), Rake-star was invited to play at Guelph, Magill said, and paraded through the streets playing just as the Arkestra had done the previous year, and “that was very, very fun”.

Magill said Rake-star is trying to bring the spirit of how Sun Ra made music to life with Rake-star.

“That's the guiding light for us all. He just embraced freedom in music-making far more than just about anyone else, so that people had all kinds of freedom in what they would bring to it. I mean, he worked incredibly hard to write and arrange music and rehearse his Arkestra tirelessly, but then the freedom for them to explore musically was pretty great.”

[David Broscoe] had conjured up this amazing hat with a giant wire sculpture on top of his head. The wires were dancing very, very close to the low-hanging wires in the ceiling of the club – for a moment we thought there might be fireworks. So I can't say for Broscoe: anything could happen.
– Rory Magill

“They made sublime beautiful music, and to my ears and to some other ears they also made some stuff that just didn't sound like it came together, but it was all of a piece. And there's something profoundly important especially for me – allowing the freedom to take chances and make mistakes and have it as an integral part is much more inviting to me than for example the great jazz lions who can do no wrong. Except, perhaps, mediocrity – some of the great jazz lions put out something that's very capable but kind of mediocre, but Sun Ra could take it to the top or towards the bottom, too. So for me that's a huge thing that he would encourage that sort of freedom.”

In their largest shows in the past, combining the Gamelan and a drumming dance group playing West African music, Rake-star has had “three dozen people on stage, all in costume and with lighting and with loosely coordinated musical expression, just utterly fantastic. Because it would go so far off the rails and it would be just this giant chaos of sound – which would occasionally merge into this sublime beautiful unity and then go off again.”

They may get there again, he said, but for now they're just pulling together their repertoire. And the IMOO show, “just the improv, is a lovely beginning because really then you're just free to play and listen.”

    – Alayne McGregor

See OttawaJazzScene.ca's review of the first IMOO concert of this season, including Rory Magill, Linsey Wellman, and David Broscoe: