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Unseen: Jazz in shorts (Part 2: 5-8)

5. At Dawn Overcoming all Difficulties (Jannik Hastrup, 1972)

Yusef Lateef

This is one of Hastrup’s six animated shorts on the history of Western Civilisation from the Middle Ages to the present day via feudalism, the Industrial Revolution, the scramble for Africa and World Wars. Not the way they teach any of this in school though. Hell no. For example, “At Dawn..”, the story of Vasco De Gama’s first expedition to Africa shows Portuguese brutality and exploitation of natives in garish detail. Good for Hastrup. Tell it like it was.

Yusef Lateef scored two (parts 2 and 4) of the six films, continuing a collaboration with Hastrup that began four years earlier on a short titled “The Boy & the Moon”, and being a multi-instrumentalist with Eastern /African leanings won’t have done him any harm securing this gig.

Standout moment is the bamboo flute and percussion exchange, first introduced during the hunting sequence and later reprised in the montage, which is then revealed as two natives having a jam. Also, fans of Lateef’s “Sister Mamie” from the “Live at Pep’s” date will be pleased to know that his sinuous oboe makes the cut.

6. Bloody Schemes (Jannik Hastrup, 1972)

Yusef Lateef

Just as atmospheric and texture filled as “At Dawn...”. More Lateef flute, some wild and free sax and a great piano lament at the start, introducing London’s own John Hawkins as the next in line of ‘greedy capitalists hatching new schemes’.

Also, some well dodgy London accents that sound more like Afrikaans trying to impersonate Cornish. The vocal is sung by Danish singer Birgit Brüel, mother of lauded advertising cinematographer Nikolaj Brüel.

7. The Magic Sun (Phill Niblock, 1966)

Sun Ra & His Solar Arkestra

A couple of years before Sun Ra uprooted to Philadelphia, filmmaker-composer Phil Niblock managed to grab a day shooting one the Arkestra’s notoriously epic rehearsals. What he wound up with might be little more than abstract close up’s of the Arkestra at work, but the optical effects are, even by Arkestra standards, singular.

We will never know what they are playing on camera, for the scurrilous notes you hear are from “Celestial Fantasy”, one of five Ra compositions on one of his rarest Saturn releases, “When Angels Speak of Love”, recorded a three years before this film was shot.

8. The Case of the Elevator Duck (Joan Micklin Silver, 1974)

Larry Goodman

This, Micklin Silver’s first film, is about a Black kid detective trying to trace the owner of a duck he runs into in a lift, and to be honest, crackpot conceit aside, it feels like a pretty authentic look (certainly more than anything Blaxploitation came up with) at working class black life at that time. Enough, so that for at least 20 minutes I thought Micklin Silver was Black. Then I watched her next film, “Hester Street”, a sort of assimilation v tradition Jewish identity struggle story which might be one of the most Jewish things ever made. Versatile.

Anyway, I think I’ve worked out why I really thought Joan Micklin Silver was Black, and it’s nothing to do with “The Case of the Elevator Duck” presenting single-parent families in the projects as the norm, however fresh that was at the time in cinema. It’s that nasty bassline and guitar combo!

Like Melvin Van Peebles tapped up then unknown Earth, Wind & Fire for “Sweetback”, I could just see Micklin Silver hanging with Michael Henderson and Sonny Sharrock (I actually have no idea who plays on this as only the music director gets a credit) at some NYC loft before a late night recording session. Come to think of it, maybe that’s exactly what happened. So what if she looks more like Dory Previn than June Tyson. Profiling. It’ll never catch on.

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