Friday, December 11, 2015

Sun Ra: a Joyful Noise

He 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 here) available on DVD again, as part of MVD’s Mugge reissue program.

Sun 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.

One 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 Noise.

In 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.