44 recommended jazz docs: Pt 6/10

1. Let's Get Lost (Bruce Weber, 1988)

Lofty yet sullen work from photographer Bruce Weber. It’s appropriately shot in film noir styled, high contrast 35mm B&W. Too much smoke: not quite Tony Scott levels of smoke, but too much smoke….

The looks have gone by now – Chet’s face annihilated by the 30-year dope habit he never even attempted to kick – and he sort of sleepwalks through long sections of this. Slow talking, fast-expiring Chet makes for a striking contrast with the arbitrarily inserted archive of the James Dean-esque Chet, but Weber doesn’t angle for audience sympathy here. Nothing like it.

‘Beauty in decay’ is a little hackneyed but Weber’s affixation with the toothless (literally) Chet is a thing of uncommon purity.Chet never lived to see its release but “Let’s Get Lost” was finished a short time before he passed away.

2. 1959 The Year that Changed Jazz ( 2009)

For at least two years, I swerved this like it was an Ang Lee film. Not because of what it said on the tin - even though at least two of these albums have been discussed as often as the meaning of life – but because of an omission and what I believed this said about the minds behind this thing.

“Kind of Blue”? Beautiful thing. “Ah Um”? Delicate masterpiece. “The Shape of Jazz to Come”? Urgent. Milestone. Check. “Time Out”. Charming, time signature innovations and all, but really? In the same year as Sun Ra’s “Jazz in Silhouette”, “Time Out” makes four? Hummm…Ah um, even…….

Well, I was being a bit of a dick. Distribution issues would have prevented Sun Ra’s “Jazz in Silhouette” from making the same immediate ripples as any of the 4 here, and anyway there’s no disputing Brubeck’s contribution to the ‘cool’ sound and its role in bringing a new unsuspecting audience to jazz.

The running time entails that we get through each record at a fair clip, but every segment is absolutely on point and Brubeck’s inclusion winds up pivotal to the film’s narrative arc, introducing and placing him within a socio-political context that forces you to look at the work of the black artists within that same landscape. Extremely watchable.

3. Hank Jones

The Brothers Jones. Elvin is quite rightly considered one of the greatest drummers ever to pick up the instrument and Thad’s big bands were almost as popular as Ellington’s for a time, but what of Hank? Well, Hank Jones is just perfectly fine. Cordial, sophisticated, pristine even, but not terribly important to the evolution of jazz piano playing.

In spite of all that, Hank is good value in this documentary made for Dutch television in 2004. Even though the film runs the entire ‘ageing jazz musician’ gauntlet, Hank Jones is great company for 20 minutes of anyone’s day. He’s like the uncle who somehow completely arrests you with rambling anecdote after rambling anecdote.

There are the obligatory jabs at free jazz; not full-blown, Miles-style denigration, but just enough to make the point about the importance of melody, harmony and technique. It’s Hank’s willingness to show like he tells that gives this some weight, and his dissection and demonstration of ‘spontaneous improvisation’ on “How High the Moon”, and what distinguishes be-bop from free jazz, is enchanting.

4. David, Moffett & Ornette : Who's Crazy? (Dick Fontaine, 1967)

Something else from Dick Fontaine, who lets remember, has already contributed the formidable “Sound” and “Who Is Sonny Rollins?” to these lists. This one captures Ornette, bassist David Izenon and drummer Charles Moffett on a Parisian excursion, where the group are to record a soundtrack to the cult Belgian film “Who’s Crazy?” .

Depending on your tolerance levels for the ‘new thing’, the music in these sequences will either enthral or depress. The interviews with Ornette that address race, poverty and how he came to realize his sound in his own individual way should carry more widespread appeal.

It’s the visual tone that takes this all the way out though. Whether it’s the trio’s performances shot in front of the projected film, interviews, or conversations between the band members as they discuss their motives for undertaking the project, it’s all shot and juxtaposed in that unhinged yet totally contained style that Fontaine practically owned.

George Nelson

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