1. Türkiye'de Caz (Jazz in Turkey ) (Batu Akyol, 2013)
One of the musicians cites "Take 5" as an example of a camouflaged Turkish beat (5/8 disguised as fifths) and such comparisons between traditional Turkish music & American Jazz are fascinating when presented as they are here. However, Akyol's film is very much an assessment Turkish jazz and it's evolution in direct parallel to Turkish history.
Though its foundations were laid in İlhan Mimaroğlu’s book “Caz Sanati” (“Art of Jazz”), “Jazz in Turkey” is the first and only cinema treatment of the subject. It’s an impressive treatment too.
Archive music material can be hard to come by in Turkey, and the bulk of the story is told orally – a documentary method that only Errol Morris seems to have mastered – yet remains absorbing enough even during those moments when you catch a whiff of over-embellishment.
2. Nina Simone; La Legende (Frank Lord, 1992)
Nina Simone’s music eludes our attempts to fix and define, so I almost always forget to include her in ‘jazz pantheon’ debates. Even Simone herself rejects the term 'jazz'.
I still believe that the best Nina Simone documentary is yet to be made. We all know she suffered from bi-polarity, we know she lived next door to Malcolm X, we know her retaliation to the Birmingham, Alabama bombing which killed 4 young girls, was to pen “Mississippi Goddam” in under an hour. We know all about her political & mental health stuggles. What we've yet to see, in the forensic detail it deserves, is a study of her process as a musician. If she is a genius , as is suggested here & everywhere else, then I need to believe that is more complicated a thing than her social conditions + some innate gift.
Still, no major issue this one, shot years after Simone fled America & a legit contender for the best of the fistful already out there (the recent, slicker, overlong "What Happened, Miss Simone?" with it's private diary scoops, extended floorspace for her abuser & lazy ascribing of mental instability to creativity, is too irresponsible for that mantle). It's formulaic, a little too saccharine at both top and tail, plus the voiceover is redundant, but it contains the most impressive archive & what marks it out from the others, is that Simone is able to talk extensively about her life to that point & i'd rather listen to her in whatever condition than the hem-lifting talking heads in "What Happened..".
3. Earl "Fatha" Hines (Charlie Nairn, 1975)
In the mid-1970s and 80s, the ageing jazz musician documentary became a rite of passage, though for the most part, an excessively sentimental one. Although this one was recorded on Hines’ 70th birthday, it is thankfully free of over-reverence.
Nairn’s film contains some precious footage of Hines performing at the Blues Alley Club, Washington, DC. In addition to his riffs about his formative days and the Prohibition years, he demonstrates the Hines approach to playing on a handily located piano and even aged 70 (he actually kept going until 79) his solos still have that gnarly texture.
Hines is credited with being the first pianist to add left hand accents – “the trickiest left hand in the business”, some said - to stride piano rhythms, but as his performances here illustrate, his dexterity was & remained far more comprehensive than just that.
Hines doesn’t need much persuasion to revisit some of his old repertoire as well as a few covers (Don Redman’s "Save it, pretty Mama", "Memories of you", "St Louis blues boogie"). He doesn’t do anything experimental or outlandish, just plays the hell out of them. The same could be said about the film. Nothing fancy, just knocks it out.
4. The World According To John Coltrane (R Palmer, T Byron, 1990)
“I believe that the execution of improvising should blend with emotion. The emotion and the execution should blend together and then you would get more or less free improvising. But in certain cases where the technical part of a tune hinders the musician from free improvising, it seems I don’t get the message that they actually hear something to play in that style of tune.” John Coltrane
First John Coltrane record I ever listened to was “Sun Ship” & I recoiled violently from the opening blasts, turned it off and spent the next few weeks pretending that Trane was a musical demigod. I then tried “Ole”, “A Love Supreme” & “Crescent” (can’t recall in what order), fell in love three times, returned to Sun Ship, fell in love again & that’s John Coltrane all over; once you’re in, you’re all the way in & it becomes near impossible to get out or to imagine wanting to.
I have a strong preference for biopics that aren't really biopics; the ones that give you just a slice not the whole Madeira. That applies even more to hour long docs than it does to feature length films, for the obvious reason that the time constraints often result in frenzied and underdeveloped treatments. This is certainly in that ‘slice not the whole’ bracket, focusing mainly on Trane’s lifelong search for new sounds, musical diversity & spiritual transcendence. Before your feelings of nausea become too intense, it is worth knowing that this is one of a select few documentaries about “spiritual transcendence” that manages not to disgrace itself.
Like I said, it has no ambitions of being the definitive Trane story, yet – perhaps as a direct consequence of this – his ethereal quality is at the film’s core. Alice Coltrane’s involvement in the making of the film (she also contributes some voiceover) may explain why at points it treads dangerously close to hero worship, but it’s easy enough to let that slide when the superlatives accompany top-table footage of one of the greatest musicians ever to check-in to the globe. Besides, the sureness and lucidity that Tommy Flanagan, Jimmy Heath & Rashied Ali bring to the occasion keeps it anchored in reality.