Some jazz is traditional and old fashioned, but it is also the music of the Space Age. In fact, one of the greatest band leaders ever, Sun Ra, hailed from Saturn (you’d better believe it). The inspiration of the Arkestra and Sun Ra’s classic science fiction blaxploitation film Space is the Place is clearly quite pronounced throughout the Ummah Chroma collective’s short film, As Told to G/D Thyself, which screens as part of the New Frontier shorts program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, in Park City.
As Told has a little bit of everything, but first and foremost it showcases the music of jazz composer and tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington, part of Ummah Chroma, along with Oscar nominated cinematographer Bradford Young (for The Arrival), Terence Nance (director of the collage-like Oversimplification of Her Beauty), Jenn Nkiru, and Marc Thomas. The comparison to Sun Ra is particularly apt, because Washington can play funky inside and explore more freely outside. Not surprisingly for a tenor player, you can also hear a Coltrane influence, manifesting itself in plaintive, spiritually searching tones.
Yet, As Told is no mere music video. It shares a kinship with Space is the Place and Afro-Futurism in general, but you can also see echoes of Nance’s Oversimplification in the cosmic animated segments. Ironically, the music school segments might remind some jazz fans of the cover to Wynton Marsalis’s Black Codes from the Underground, but that was probably unintentional.
So, what is it all about? It is about twenty-four minutes. The narrative is rather loose, but it broadly encompasses man’s search for meaning in the universe and our collective relationship to the sacred. There is also a good deal of wood-shedding.
Regardless, Washington’s passionate music is more than enough reason to seek out Ummah Chroma’s film. There are sizable extracts from ten of his originals (“Journey” also features original lyrics penned by Patrice Quinn), as well as covers of Freddie Hubbard’s “Hub-Tones,” Stan Vincent’s “Ooh Child,” and “Fists of Fury” (from the Bruce Lee soundtrack). Highly recommended, As Told to G/D Thyself screens again tomorrow (1/28) in Salt Lake and Tuesday (1/29) and Friday (2/1) in Park City, as part of the New Frontier shorts program at this year’s Sundance.