Sung Ra
with Rakestar Arkestra, Tone Cluster Choir, and Christine Duncan
Church of the Ascension, Ottawa
Sunday, January 22, 2017 – 7:30 p.m.

It was an evening of joyful, exuberant singing, dancing, and instrumental performance – with some stretching of the musical edges and even some preaching, as Ottawa's Rakestar Arkestra along with the Tone Cluster choir and vocalist and conductor Christine Duncan – 30 musicians in total – paid tribute to the music of its inspiration, American jazz icon Sun Ra.

Rakestar Arkestra baritone saxophinist John Sobol gave a rousing welcome to Sung Ra ©2017 Brett Delmage
Rakestar Arkestra baritone saxophinist John Sobol gave a rousing welcome to Sung Ra ©2017 Brett Delmage
The Church of the Ascension was packed, with last-minute arrivals having problems finding seats. Listeners were treated to two sets of a fast-moving, multi-layered music that was rooted in the jazz tradition and then rocketed into the ionosphere.

View photos of Sung Ra's concert on January 22, 2017 by Brett Delmage

View photos of Sung Ra's dress rehearsal on January 21, 2017 by Brett Delmage

The concert was the vision of Ottawa percussionist and composer Rory Magill, a founding member of Rakestar, who had also previously written choral pieces for Tone Cluster. Magill contributed two pieces to the show – in particular, the opening piece, “Ready”, in which the the choir introduced the audience to Sun Ra in beautiful, close-knit harmonies.

Baritone saxophonist John Sobol intoned a welcome to open the show, followed by the choir, directed by Kurt Ala-Kantti, brightly singing “Ready”. The music was presented in a steady journey through space throughout two sets and kept the audience riveted to the stage. The compositions were primarily by Sun Ra, rearranged by Rakestar for this show, but also included originals by Magill and David Broscoe.

Christine Duncan led the choir in extraordinary sound-making: sometimes melodic, sometimes rhythmic, sometimes recreating the animal noises from a Middle Eastern market. She also sang as a soloist with Rakestar, creating some astounding vocal pyrotechnics. In “Today is the Shadow”, she delivered a full-on revivalist sermon , raising everyone's spirits for the end of the show.

Don Cummings' Hammond organ reverberated through the church, sometimes caressing, sometimes deeply ominous. Tone Cluster's pianist, Vincent Mar, added piano and organ embellishments on many pieces, particularly “Ready”, which beautifully accompanied the choir. Mike Essoudry on drums energized the music, as well as playing sinuous clarinet. Scott Warren not only provided unusual percussion and drums; he also contributed other-worldly recorded sound clips, and acoustic augmentations. Magill's bright xylophone playing added a magical feel throughout. The four saxophonists (Broscoe, Sobol, Rob Frayne, and Linsey Wellman) fired up the music both in unison, and with extended, impassioned solos.

The result was a consistently varied and interesting selection of pieces that could both groove and startle. The performances were consistently tight and flowed well from one to another. The church's resonances heightened the effect of both the choir and the Arkestra, creating a majestic sound.

Sun Ra always made his concerts visual spectacles, and this concert lived up to that tradition: the choir was dressed in spangles and multi-coloured costumes, with one singer in a golden fish head and another appearing as a rainbow-hued unicorn; the Arkestra wore bright robes and shiny hats; and Duncan displayed a leopard-skin hat (stuffed to stand upright) on her head.

The first set ended with the choir and musicians appropriately parading up and down the aisles as they chanted Ra's ebullient and almost hypnotic “We Travel the Spaceways”. At the end of the two-hour show, Ra's message of “love everlasting” spread through the church as everyone, audience included, joined in on “Love in Outer Space”. As the last notes died out, the audience rose for an extended and well-earned standing ovation.

   – Alayne McGregor

Read's advance interviews with Rory Magill and Christine Duncan about this concert: