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44 recommended jazz docs: Pt 5/10

1. Who is Sonny Rollins? (Dick Fontaine, 1967)

Fascinating, quite beautiful short doc. Dick Fontaine would pick up this story again in 2006, by which point an 80-year old Rollins had bagged a Grammy. That film, titled “Beyond the Notes”, focuses on a reunion concert, features Ornette Coleman, Roy Haynes & Jim Hall. It’s a satisfying enough watch but this is the more intruiging film.

In this one, a mid-sabbatical (his second) Rollins discusses, amongst other things, the slow debilitation of the jobbing jazz player, even going as far as to say that the club scene and its trappings “kills off” musicians. Rollins’ time is better spent dropping in on drummer Charles Moffett’s music lessons, and just as in “Jackie McLean on Mars”, the dispirited artist finds a degree of salvation in the classroom. As these scenes progress, it is almost as though the comparative airiness of the setting alone – even more than being surrounded by young exuberance - has a resuscitative effect on both men.

The mesmeric sequences of Rollins and Paul Jeffrey playing in wide open spaces like the Williamsburg Bridge are no more than natural extensions of the ‘escaping The Life’ motif. The inner city jungle may not exude the tranquillity of Hermeto Pascoal’s “Música da Lagoa” or Rahsaan Roland Kirk at the Zoo (see “Sounds” from the previous list), but Rollins’ receptivity to the siren screams and train squeals is nothing if not confirmation that his is a sound born and made in urban morass.

2. Catching a Snake (1985)

"If you put in the energy and the time you can learn to play classical music. Learning jazz is not as easy - it's like trying to catch a snake." Wynton Marsalis

From the get-go its Wynton.

If I ate a pie for every time Wynton mentions the words “Jazz”, “only”, “true” and “20th Century artform” in the same sentence, I’d be very, very portly. If I pulled a hair out each time Wynton went “boop-oh-dum-dum-dum-tish-badum-dum” halfway through a carefully developed point on the importance of swing and rhythm, I’d be Woody Strode. If I was lightly punched every time Wynton says “swing” or “rhythm” then I wouldn’t be writing this at all because I would be dead.

Wynton would go to war for Jazz. He has plenty to say about plenty, but mainly about jazz. He is an incredibly articulate storyteller but he has his ticks, and if like me you’re drawn to them in spite of yourself, then you’ll find this irresistible. His Stravinsky rant is not to be missed.

3. Branford Marsalis: The Music Tells You (D A Pennebaker, 1992)

Not quite (it’s closer than you'd imagine) as outspoken or dogmatic as Wynton, Branford is often unfairly considered the less “serious” of the two brothers. He’s an articulate, likeable guy with his own jazz codes (“There’s only freedom in structure, my man. There’s no freedom in freedom.”/ “You don’t play what you feel”), a very decent soloist and composer with a great ear for rhythm.

“The Music Tells You”, directed by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus captures Branford in the recording studio, teaching student workshops, backstage (including a great sequence when the band impersonate hillbillies) , telephone interviews and on the road. Although he’s pretty magnanimous about the “sell-out” claims, Branford makes the point that those people pre-occupied with his stretches in Sting’s band and Grateful Dead aren’t so quick to recall his Blakey time, his Miles time, his Dizzy time…That would be anyone in his positions go-to defence, of course, but the point is he did the hard yards and, horrific as the Sting careen was to me and probably you, he clearly thought otherwise and it’s that same willingness to venture, that lead to the Buckshot Le Fonque project and Fight the Power...... so shush, ai’ight.

Some fine performances in various settings with Jeff Watts et al - inc “Citizen Tain,” “We Work the Black Seam,” “Classroom Jam,” and “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born” - punctuate the film. Overall, you can feel Branford’s love of what he does and those around him, but it’s also interesting to see a film that refuses to avert its gaze at the points where he isn’t feeling it or them much at all. In that respect, the “The Music Tells You” is as candid and engaging as its subject.

4. Sonny Rollins (Mildred Clary, 1981)

Another sabbatical. By this point Rollins had gone from substitute teacher VIP guest to fully-fledged jazz scholar and that's all Clary's film concerns itself with.

There is some Rollins voice-over, such as when he recalls Charlie Parker’s disappointment that so many of his protégés sought to emulate not just his music but his lifestyle. This is purely decorative however; the real treat is seeing the rehearsals and these sorts of lessons documented in real time.

We've seen the masters teaching saxophone embouchure and breathing principles, but the spoken emphasis Rollins puts on these young players sounding more like themselves, on them playing with greater expression, on the importance of not losing sight of Jazz as a form of entertainment is uncommonly discerning. Just look at Rollins' face (23:57-25:31) when the sax man finally catches it and starts swinging.

George Nelson

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