hailed from Saturn and he came to stretch the music, while still swinging it.
Don’t even talk about Herman Blount from Birmingham, because we do not want to
hear it. Sun Ra will always be jazz’s preeminent space traveler, occupying a
truly unique place in music history. Sun Ra left the planet in 1993, but he
could come back at any time. In the meanwhile, it is nice to have Robert Mugge’s
classic performance documentary Sun Ra: a Joyful Noise (trailer
available on DVD again, as part of MVD’s Mugge reissue program.
Ra was not just about the future. He also looked back to the past, often incorporating
ancient Egyptian symbolism in his costumes and stage settings. It is therefore
fitting that Mugge interviewed Sun Ra in the Egyptian wing of the Museum of the
University of Pennsylvania. In Joyful
Noise, Mugge follows a game plan very similar to that of Gil Scott-Heron: Black Wax, breaking up
the live on-stage performances with what could be considered spoken word interludes
or even performance art based on public persona. Of course, Scott-Heron’s
highly dated political rants can hardly hold a candle to tripped-out cosmic philosophizing
and linguistic word play of Sun Ra.
of the coolest things about Joyful Noise,
besides Sun Ra himself, is the way Mugge captures the breadth and versatility
of his music. Under Sun Ra’s direction, the Arkestra could play the sort of
blistering free jazz that would inspire cats like Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore or
throw everyone a change-up, launching into a totally swinging, in-the-pocket
set, in the Ellington tradition. However, as an early adopter of electric
keyboards, Sun Ra always gave his stylistic multitudes a funky edge. Happily,
you can hear it over and over again in Joyful
his way, Sun Ra was just as political as Scott-Heron. Check out his Blaxploitation
science fiction cult classic Space is the
Place if you doubt it. Yet, one can confidently argue Sun Ra was far more
influential. It is hard to imagine the development of afrofuturism without him.
He also hired and retained some incredible musicians, including Marshall Allen
(featured taking an incendiary alto solo), John Gilmore (who eloquently
explains why he settled in for such a long stint with the Arkestra just as he
was making a hardbop name for himself), and the incomparable vocalist June
Tyson (watch her during their rooftop performance and just try to compare her
to anyone else).
Mugge also ends the film perfectly, capturing
the infectious energy of the Arkestra’s intergalactic second-lining that closed
their gig for the Baltimore Left Bank Jazz Society. We will never have enough
Sun Ra, but A Joyful Noise is an
especially accessible introduction to the man and his music. Very highly
recommended, Sun Ra: a Joyful Noise is
now available on DVD and BluRay, from MVD.
Labels: DVD, Robert Mugge, Sun Ra