There will be weird costumes and obtuse projections, clattering noise and distorted classical music, some balloons and maybe even a little blood. But on Thursday, which marks what would have been the 100th birthday of Sun Ra, the music that local improvisational collective Polyorchard will play won't belong to the eccentric composer and jazz pioneer. There will be no space for Space is the Place.
"It's not going to be a tribute show," explains upright bassist David Menestres. "I don't think Sun Ra needs that."
His backing band, the Arkestra, still tours, anyway, keeping Sun Ra's music alive themselves. But like the Arkestra, Polyorchard is a permanently unstable assemblage of accomplished musicians, including professional classical and jazz players. They come together to explore strange tones and surreal tangents. They'll use Sun Ra's birthday as an excuse for another such trip.
This time, Polyorchard should feature bass, guitar, vocals, trumpet, cello, oboe, French horn, projections and percussion from Ken Moshesh, an ex-member of the Arkestra. The lineup may morph by show time. It's the nature of the wholly spontaneous ensemble.
"Most of the time we don't talk about anything," Menestres says. "Sometimes we'll talk about simple things. I was talking about jigsaw puzzles before one show. I don't know if you can hear that, but I think it definitely changed everything." Sun Ra will provide a stronger unifying force on Thursday, as the members will even read his poetry beforehand. But the music will still be unrehearsed, open and adventurous. Menestres, for instance, wedges chopsticks between his bass strings and beats his bass with a plastic He-Man shield.
Visually, too, the aim is to honor Sun Ra with the strange and original. Photographer and visual artist Julianna Thomas will don a brilliant gold cape and mix her own footage with dated commercials and retro-futuristic stock clips. She may also include pieces from Sun Ra's film Space is the Place and Blood Feast, Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1963 horror movie with a campy Egyptian mythology subtext.
"Space and ancient Egypt were very important to Sun Ra," she says. He claimed to be a native of Saturn, not Alabama. "My part of this show is about paying homage to that in a fun, visually interesting way."
Polyorchard aims to honor Sun Ra's contributions to jazz, electronica, composition and art at large, then, not by retracing his steps but by following his path ahead. Considering his own longstanding quest for a bright and uncanny future, that move seems most appropriate.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A new space"