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44 recommended jazz docs: Pt 2/10

1. Listen Up! The Many Lives of Quincy (1990)

This got panned on release. Critics hated what they saw as a failed effort at an artsy documentary. It’s slightly depressing that anything asking more of an audience than stop, stare & listen is forever cast as “taking itself too seriously”.

I don’t think anyone disputes that purely technically, the editing is on another stratosphere, but I think it works conceptually too. It is the ultimate jazz documentary in that it’s cut like a jazz composition; it can take some time to attune yourself to its rhythm but once you get there, it feels like the only way to hear the music.

Also, attempting to cover Quincy’s life experiences & dizzyingly varied music output – travelling Europe as music director for some of the greatest big bands of all time, scoring over 30 feature films, producing MJ’s first three albums and surviving a life-threatening aneurysm - in a formulaic manner would be a bit like shooting a party political broadcast like a Hype Williams video. Case in point is the later & perfectly acceptable BBC doc confusingly titled “The Many Lives of Q”, which assumed a more conventional stance yet offered much less insight than this one. For my tastes at least, the visual concept should ideally capture the essence of the subject and few documentaries do that as convincingly as “Listen Up!”.

2. Thelonious Monk - Straight No Chaser (Charlotte Zwerin, 1988)

The spine of this doc is taken from 14 hours of film shot in 1967 by Michael and Christian Blackwood for a cinema verite West German television special about Thelonius Monk. That film ran at under 1 hour and consisted mainly of live performance material. The rest of the unused footage gathered dust in vaults for the next 20 or so years until it was rediscovered; presumably because someone thought nobody would care for off-stage Monk, when thanks to films like Zwerin’s here, every Monk fan and their dog knows it’s the only thing as fascinating as on-stage Monk.

There are interviews with his friends, family, collaborators and contemporaries like Charlie Rouse & Barry Harris, yet even after the full-length doc treatment, Monk still manages to preserve his elusive status – probably because he remained an enigma to just about everybody. We aren’t told as much about Monk’s early life or the origins of his music, as we would typically expect from a documentary film. At least not directly. “Straight No Chaser” is more observational than anything else and it’s intriguing to see who or what annoys (Teo Macero mainly), discomforts (Count Basie staring in his direction) and amuses him (Teo Macero again) and how the resulting conditions contribute to what he plays.

Monk with his wife Nellie is a thing of rare beauty, and it becomes clear that he’s only truly at ease when in her and Baroness Nica’s company, which in the heavily male-oriented world of jazz is revelation enough.

Watching Monk spinning circles in an airport will lead to the consequence of nothing but it’s time well spent.

3. Wayne Shorter - The Language of the Unknown (Guido Lukoschek, 2013)

4. Joe Albany: A Jazz Life (Carole Langer, 1980)

“Jazz is the ideal state for any repressed person to express themselves, because they’re improvising.” Joe Albany

Joe Albany is the tribulation-ridden jazzman writ large. His troubles with heroin addiction, crime, hospital orders and incarceration, resulted in one album release between 1957 and 1971, so unsurprisingly “A Jazz Life” is primarily concerned with his lifelong struggles with personal demons.

I suppose this isn’t an unfamiliar story – certainly not in the realm of jazz – but Albany’s frankness, wit and humility makes it a potent one. That this contains the only footage ever captured of Albany playing is reason enough to watch it.

Albany was supposedly Charlie Parker’s favourite pianist and although these New York club performances of Parker originals and standards are several years after that era, you can see why he was so highly regarded by his peers.

George Nelson

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