If you believe Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Sun Ra and his Arkestra can be held at least partially responsible for the '80s/'90s revolution in indie rock led by Moore's band and others. Music futurist and self-proclaimed man from Saturn, Ra was one of the forefathers of free jazz, having performed with his swing-based band amid swirling lights and tribal dancers. More than his music or live shows, it was Ra's DIY spirit that left the most enduring mark. Ra and his Arkestra released many of their own records, played together, prayed together and stayed together -- most under the same communal roof in Philly for more than 20 years. Fearless leader Ra, who was a college professor at Berkeley at one point, has since left this mortal coil, but his legend lives on through his disciples.
The 13-plus-piece Sun Ra Arkestra will be touching down briefly here in Houston at MECA (Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts) for a night of interstellar music and lights. Its performances now as rare and special as a sighting of Halley's Comet, the Arkestra has not alighted in Houston since 1987, when the masters of time and space played at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Now under the leadership of 74-year-old alto saxophone legend Marshall Allen, who performed here last year with a much smaller sampling of players, the ensemble features other notable, original Arkestra members: John Ore on bass, Tyrone Hill on trombone, Jimmi Esspirit on percussion, Charles Davis on baritone sax and Luqman Ali on drums. Like the Duke's famed orchestras, Ra's band included some of the best musicians of the day, many of whom could have achieved notoriety on their own. Some of these guys have been playing together for 30 or 40 years.
Even so, the show itself is unpredictable. Tales of Ra-related miracles and healings abound, of stormy skies clearing at outdoor festivals the moment the Arkestra hits the stage, of Sonny Rollins playing with Ra in Chicago while kicking smack in the '50s, of dead car batteries coming back to life after shows. Expect no less than illumination.
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The Sun Ra Arkestra, under the direction of Marshall Allen, performs Wednesday, November 17, at 8 p.m. at MECA Auditorium, 1900 Kane. Tickets are $13. Call (713)802-9370 for more information. For tickets, available at Sound Exchange, call (713)666-5555.