The Brilliant Skies of Mr. Sun
Mr. Sun is home to three generations of extraordinarily talented musicians, each bringing their own gifts to the band. Although the band can be categorized as American String Music or bluegrass or jazz, as a group, Mr. Sun continues to innovate the possibilities of all these genres.
Perhaps by virtue of his long career as an innovator in contemporary string music, fiddler extraordinaire, Darol Anger, is the spiritual leader of Mr. Sun. Anger has played with Republic of Strings, the Turtle Island String Quartet, the David Grisman Quintet, Montreux, Psychograss, The Duo, and other ensembles. He is also an associate professor at Berklee College of Music. Anger is joined by mandolinist Joe K. Walsh, who spent four award-winning years in the Gibson Brothers. Like Anger, Walsh has also held a Berklee professorship. Guitar genius Grant Gordy, a former member of David Grisman’s unit, is a master of various styles from bluegrass to R&B, to rock and jazz. New to the group is veteran jazz musician, Aidan O’Donnell.
On March 17, 2022, I went with my twenty-six-year-old son, Thelonious, to see Mr. Sun debut their newly released album, Extrovert, at Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan. I had been given access to the pre-released album a few weeks prior, and along with Extrovert, I had been listening to Mr. Sun’s first album, The People Need Light, obsessively.
That night the group opened with Danny Barnes, written by Gordy (an homage to the composer and banjo player, Danny Barnes). Despite the complexity level of the song and the musical firepower on that Rockwell stage, the players bobbed their heads and tapped their feet like they were audience members too. Anger drummed his violin with his bow, smiling. Once the band fully came in together, I was immediately struck by the dialog between musicians, like they were passing solos back and forth to each other, sometimes finishing each other’s licks. I could hear the musicians grunting and chortling, as if they were on a soccer field, trying to impress each other with acrobatics and impossible plays. It wasn’t that they were competing against each other. They were enthusiastically trying to dazzle each other, as if to say, “hey, that was cool, check this out.” Meanwhile the audience was the beneficiary of their playful virtuosity. As Danny Barnes appeared sometimes to come to an end, band members took turns continuing the instrumental sections, crushing the audience’s expectations, and laughing all the while.
Mr. Sun is a band that will satisfy the musical nerds, but doesn’t forget about its audience. By entertaining each other, they entertain the audience. Gordy provided a preamble to the next song, saying that the members of Mr. Sun are, “benevolent stewards of the next generation, playing obscure bands’ music.” I was waiting to hear something I’d never heard before, and truly respected Mr. Sun’s devotion to lesser-known bands. This fantasy was smashed to bits when I heard the first three notes played by Gordy, and realized they’d launched into a cover of Blackbird, by the Beatles. People in the room chuckled when they understood the ruse that had been played on them.
And while Mr. Sun is drawing from the bluegrass jazz fusion traditions forged by David Grisman and Anger, they are also extending the tradition to something new and vibrant. The high-wire musical dialog passed between Walsh, Anger, and Gordy thread a needle through musical universes yet unexplored or unknown. Walsh played a solo part that could be described as a sophisticated mathematical design. He then tossed his multi-sided polyhedron to Gordy who transformed it – on the spot – into some other complex polyhedron. The game continued as Anger took the queue from Gordy and developed his own on-the-spot transformation. And this was all backed by O’Donnell’s thumping bass lines, keeping the bop rhythm driving and exciting. The musicians maintained eye contact at all times, as if volleying with their gazes. When they were not looking at each other, they were looking at each other’s instruments.
As Gordy told me in a conversation I had with him prior to that night, these guys love playing together. Their main goal is to have fun. Even the name Mr. Sun is intended to express joy. The audience was showered in that effulgent light and good feeling.
The band followed up Blackbird with Dry & Dusty, a song from their first album. Despite being an old Texas fiddle tune, Mr. Sun gives it a new feel, perhaps even a bit of a Celtic lilt. Dry & Dusty is very lush and emotive, showing us that Mr. Sun has many tricks in their bag.
I had asked Gordy what genre of music Mr. Sun played, knowing this would be unanswerable.
“Categories are really for the music labels,” said Gordy. “They need to know how to sell us.”
But the truth is Mr. Sun is more than just a composite of the styles that have influenced them and which they are interested in. In addition to influences previously mentioned, Gordy told me that members of Mr. Sun recognize their debt to African American music: R&B, funk, and jazz. There is no question that they’ve put a funky twist on their version of American String music. There is plenty of fizzle and pop in their delivery.
Anger introduced the next song Breakers Bakedown from Extrovert which he wrote as an homage to Bill Monroe’s fiddle player, Kenny Baker. Breakers Bakedown is the tie that brings us back into the fold of the tradition, reminding us that everything comes from something.
Next up was one of my favorite songs on Extrovert, The Fiddler of Dooney, which, as Walsh described, was a collaboration between him and William B. Yeats (although Yeats would not live to know this). This song really moved me. It was played at the right time in the set. Now that the band had whipped the audience up, our hearts and minds were open to hear something pensive. The Fiddler of Dooney also has a Celtic feel to it and, rightfully so, pays homage to the lyrics of Yeats.
Anger introduced the next song, Hunters Permit [from The People Need Light], written by Walsh and co-written by guitarist Scott Law, as a gypsy jazz tune. Although Anger is the elder of the group, perhaps its mentor, the performance Mr. Sun delivered was very democratic. Everyone seemed to both lead and follow at the same time. For the most part, Walsh and Gordy took front stage, as Anger humbly laid back, stepping to the front at times to deliver a demon possessed solo.
Being a guitar player myself, I watched Gordy very closely. He never looked down at his guitar. ‘How does he know where the frets are?’ Admittedly nowhere near the guitar player Gordy is, I have no idea how he’s doing what he’s doing. Grant said to me that he’s not always sure. But his playing always sounds precise, evocative, and incredibly inventive. His soul knows exactly what to do. It’s like he plays upside down and backwards simultaneously.
Darol then invited other players to join the stage for his song, Key Signator, also on The People Need Light. I hadn’t noticed Tony Trischka sitting covertly in the audience. Trischka ran up to the stage, banjo in hand, asking, “where do we stand?” The audience noticed their predicament. In addition to Trischka, Alex Hargreaves on fiddle, and Jacob Jolliff on mandolin also joined the stage. Although they were tightly packed in, the song erupted into action as the players negotiated access to the microphones, trying not to collide instruments or bump into each other. Key Signator, written in 1979, was on Anger’s first record, Fiddlistics, and was also performed often by the David Grisman Quintet
The song selection on Extrovert is very eclectic. In addition to tunes written by the players, there’s Mingus’s Better Git It in Your Soul, Lennon/McCartney’s Blackbird, and a railroad chant song titled Tamp ‘Em Up Solid, which was recorded by Ry Cooder.
The band ended the night’s performance with Eddy Arnold’s Just A Little Lovin’ which has famously been recorded by Ray Charles, among others. And while Mr. Sun is an amazing instrumental unit, I love their vocal songs like After You’ve Gone, which is on The People Need Light, and Just A Little Lovin’, a jumping and popping tune. Walsh sings like he’s having fun, making it all look easy. What a great way to send the audience home, whistling and humming a great song melody.
My son Thelonious, who doesn’t really listen to American String music, or bluegrass, or jazz fusion, said that seeing Mr. Sun perform helped him to better understand the music. He very much enjoyed the show.
I’m looking forward to seeing Mr. Sun play at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in July 2022. I’m glad to live in a world where there is promise of more music from Mr. Sun.
Extrovert is available on most streaming platforms, or you can pre-order CD or Vinyl online.
For more information on Mr. Sun, you can visit them online.