Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Imagine the Sound - free jazz doc at the Vancity Theatre

Archie Shepp

It’s an odd thing for Ron Mann to have made a documentary about free jazz in 1981. By that point, the form’s most passionate proponents, Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, were long dead; one of its most intelligent and influential innovators, Ornette Coleman, had abandoned the form; the energies of black radical 1960’s politics that had once charged the music and made it dangerous were almost completely dissipated; and the surviving musicians had become, for the most part, comfortably embraced by the (mostly white) middle classes as a prestige form of entertainment, a high art akin to avant garde classical music (I can’t say too much bad about that because I’m sitting in that row myself, but in a way it’s almost as odd as Christianity becoming the predominant religion of Rome.) To director Mann’s credit, he very nearly explores this question with the musicians he interviews for his documentary, Imagine the Sound (playing again on the 23rd and 28th at the Vancity Theatre); for the most part, though, he is content to have discussions about free jazz past, while filming four survivors doing their thing, such as their thing was, in 1981.

There are a few problems in this approach. First off, Archie Shepp – who, rather to my surprise, seems the most wholly likable of the musicians interviewed, unpretentious, laid-back, and articulate – had, by 1981, completely stopped playing anything that I can comfortably call free jazz, having moved back in time to earlier, easier forms, apparently having gotten out of his system whatever it was that once made his music so goddamn powerful. What’s left is pretty ordinary, boppish jazz (he wears a suit and tie while playing it, even, and, um, appears to be smoking tobacco in that pipe); this conveys very very little of Shepp’s potential. I mean the man no disrespect – and I even enjoy some of his later recordings, particularly those with Horace Parlan – but the performances here don’t excite very much; and the more interesting things Shepp gets into talking about – like his feelings, as a Floridan, about what he saw as the complementary approaches of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X – are cut away from fairly quickly, as we shift to the other musicians covered. Of course, the question of “What happened to you?” is not raised at all – what first time filmmaker could dare? Actually, I’d have liked the film more if the whole thing had been devoted to Shepp, his trajectory through jazz, his time as a radical, and so forth – an exploration of the Shepp of the 60s and the Shepp of the 80s, and what each could rightly be said to mean for jazz.

Paul Bley, too, also wins points for having interesting things to say, but jeez those sounded like vaguely bluesy, 70’s, Keith Jarrett-y tunes he was playing on the piano. It’s pretty weird to see: at one point, he directly starts plucking the strings of the piano, which, in improvised shows, usually signifies a complete departure from tunefulness into pure sound and noise. Not here; he might as well have continued on the keys. Given that the questions he’s asked tend to revolve around the radical nature of free jazz, one is not sure that Bley, based on the music he plays, is the best person to be talking to; while his music doesn’t offend, it also fails to really invoke the ferocity and innovation of free jazz. There are a dozen musicians I would have focused on before him. I’ve never really gotten his importance.

A weirder case (by far) is that of Cecil Taylor. Tho’ I’m no judge of poetry, I kind of liked the rhythms of his delivery for the piece he recited, much more than Shepp’s beatnik-ish delivery of “Mama Rose.” Alas, almost every other time Taylor is allowed to talk into the camera, he comes across – and I was amazed by this – as an effete, pretentious wanker, impregnated by his own self love. There is one “interpretative dance” piece – I don’t really know what the fuck to call it, since he’s not interpreting anything but his own apparent egomania – that is an embarrassment to behold; maybe it looked better in 1981, but that’s hard to imagine. This is a terrible shame because - in a complete inversion of Bley and Shepp – he plays with all the ferocity and passion and intelligence that he ever did, and of the musicians documented, is the only one who has the power to really convey what free jazz could be (and often still is, when you can find it). Perhaps his precious self-presentation is actually an integral part of this, is somehow a means of refusing to be comfortably inducted into the middle classes - resistance through self-involvement. His musical performances alone make this film worth seeing, though. The first extended piece he plays, which begins with fairly quiet, spacious angular notes and Cecil half-singing over them, his mouth responding to what his hands are doing even when little sound comes out – teaches us more about improvised jazz – it’s inherent logic, it’s expressive capacity, it’s passionate focus – than anything anyone says in this film (especially him). It's a jaw dropping bit of filmed music - well worth your time.

The thing about Bill Dixon is that I’d never heard about him before seeing this film. Is he an important figure in free jazz? Has he worked with important people? Other than the detail he offers on camera that he formed the Jazz Composer’s Guild, there isn’t actually much history provided. The same goes for the rest of the musicians, whose backgrounds are only dealt with in the course of the interviews; as with Mann’s other documentary from this period, the more ambitious Poetry in Motion, there is no narration, no argument, no structure save that suggested by the sum total of what the musicians say and do, which very often touches on common themes. That’s fine, in fact, except I still don’t really know who Bill Dixon is. Seems like an interesting guy, if a bit difficult. His music neither grabbed me and shook me – as he says at one point was his inclination in the 1960’s – nor bored or upset me. The most distinguishing feature of his performances, in fact, is how feckin’ bored his bass player looks; I get more excited teaching ESL classes. When he’s on camera as Dixon is being interviewed, said bassist even appears to roll his eyes in disgust a few times. It’s kind of a shame he wasn’t allowed to say anything – it would have livened up the proceedings a bit.

So, uh, yeah... this is NOT a bad film to watch, if you like free jazz, but I’m not sure who I’d recommend it to. People who know about free jazz won’t get many questions answered, and, unless they’re the sort of jazz fan that loves EVERYTHING jazz, won’t get THAT excited by the music. On the other hand, people who are being introduced to the form won’t really “get” what they need to, in order to go away even half-educated; if they enter the film in the dark about why such a noisy, aggressive form of jazz, liked by so few at the time when it was being made most passionately, is actually of singular importance - they will remain mostly in the dark on leaving. I wanted to like this film a lot more than I did, particularly since I have a vested interest in seeing people attend the Vancity Theatre (our nicest cinema, imperilled by bizarrely crappy attendance).

You know who I’d like to see a jazz documentary about? Charles Gayle.

Now THAT would be an interesting film.

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