The Month In Jazz – June 2022
The list of truly great jazz movies — dramas, I mean, not documentaries — is surprisingly short. Most movies about jazz kinda suck, in fact, and in recent years, there have been some really bad ones, like La La Land, Whiplash, Miles Ahead, and Bolden. (At least the soundtracks to the latter two were worth listening to … once.) Things weren’t much better in the past, either; the only two older jazz-related movies I really like are Paris Blues, with Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier, and The Man With The Golden Arm, which is a noir movie that’s about illegal gambling as much as jazz. (Frank Sinatra plays a junkie ex-con card dealer who wants to be a big band drummer.) One of the supporting characters in Sweet Smell Of Success, which is an incredible movie that you should absolutely see if you never have, is a jazz guitarist, seen performing with Chico Hamilton’s band (the quintet’s real guitarist, John Pisano, recorded the music for the soundtrack), but the movie’s not really about that. Similarly, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club is better than you may have heard, but it’s half about music and half about gangsterism, and its horrible musical-fantasy ending blows any goodwill earned.
One of the greatest movies about jazz has recently been released on Blu-Ray by the Criterion Collection. Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight, from 1986, is a beautiful tribute to the music, and to one legendary player in particular. Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who had never acted before, stars as Dale Turner, a troubled genius who flees to Paris from New York in 1959, thinking he can get a fresh start. Before he leaves, though, a fellow musician says, “You know who’ll be waiting for you when you get there? You.”
Turner manages to get a residency at the Blue Note, a small basement club, thanks to a woman named Buttercup who serves as his minder and de facto manager, making sure he doesn’t drink and collecting his money for him. The band, assembled by pianist Herbie Hancock (whose character is named Eddie Wayne), includes John McLaughlin on guitar, Pierre Michelot on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums; vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and singer Lonette McKee show up as guests. They’re also “in character,” not playing themselves, though they don’t get a whole lot of dialogue one way or the other. Later, there’s a studio session that features Hancock, Shorter, trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, and bassist Ron Carter, and in the film’s final act, Turner returns to New York and plays with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianist Cedar Walton, Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. The performances are uniformly fantastic, and Tavernier lets them run more or less in full.
Turner befriends a French graphic designer named Francis, who lives in a tiny apartment with his daughter Berangere. The relationship is exploitive at first, with the saxophonist leaning on this starry-eyed fan to buy him the drinks no one else will provide. Soon, though, they get closer, and in order to help the saxophonist kick the booze that’s putting him in the hospital and jail, Francis lets him live with him. Eventually, they move into a larger place (thanks to a loan from Francis’s long-suffering ex-wife), and Turner cleans up. He’s playing better and feeling happier, and decides he’s strong enough to return to New York and make a comeback. Francis accompanies him briefly, but has to go back home, and soon after, he receives a telegram telling him that Turner has died.
The movie looks incredible on Blu-Ray, and Martin Scorsese has a hilarious cameo as Turner’s manager, Goodley, in the New York scenes. Dexter Gordon, though, is amazing in the lead role. He’s got a sharp sense of humor, but a deep melancholy, too, and his struggles with his music and the poverty endemic to the jazz life feel very real. His portrayal of a half-broken man, fundamentally kind but obsessed with his music and forever uncertain about his place in the world, is three-dimensional and captivating. And this is largely to his own credit: Gordon rewrote much of the script to make it more accurate. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, though he lost to Paul Newman (who was up for The Color Of Money, directed by … Martin Scorsese).
There were two soundtrack albums – the first, simply called Round Midnight, and then a sequel, The Other Side Of Round Midnight. Together, they feature Gordon’s final studio recordings, and they’re both on streaming services.
Round Midnight was the first in a trio of good-to-great jazz movies released over the course of five years. The next one was Bird, Clint Eastwood’s 1988 biography of/tribute to Charlie Parker. The movie centers around Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Parker, which, given the myths that have built up around the man in the more than six decades since his death, could have really changed perceptions of him. Parker is often regarded by those outside jazz who are aware of him at all as a shambling junkie who somehow managed to be a brilliant saxophonist. And as much as he was beloved by other musicians, he was a highly intelligent, cultured and verbose guy who was fascinated by all sorts of music and studied extensively.
Parker’s methods involved picking melodies and harmonies apart, taking them down to their tiniest components and reassembling them in new ways. He was particularly captivated by some of the avant-garde classical music of the time, and very much wanted to study with Igor Stravinsky. There’s a scene in the movie where a drunk Parker shows up at the composer’s front gate late one night and rings the bell, but is not admitted. Whitaker plays him as someone who seems almost bipolar — he’s laughing and joking and seducing his wife Chan (played by Diane Venora) one moment, then roaring like an anguished bear or clutching his gut in agony (he suffered from bleeding ulcers) the next. But he’s obviously brilliant, albeit self-sabotaging.
Whitaker won the Best Actor award at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal of Parker, and was nominated for a Golden Globe, as well. Eastwood won a Golden Globe for Best Director.
Bird is an ’80s movie that deals with racism and mainstream society’s general disrespect for jazz and jazz musicians, so there are a few on-the-nose speeches from Dizzy Gillespie (played by Samuel E. Wright) and an unidentified older musician, the latter of whom advises Parker to stay in Paris rather than return to New York. But Eastwood — who as a teenager in the 1940s saw Parker play — never really feels that the music requires defending; he’s about showing you its glory, and like Tavernier, he does that by including extended performance sequences, which in a rather remarkable technical achievement for the time used previously unknown recordings of Parker, supplied by Chan. His solos were digitally extracted, and new backing tracks played by present-day musicians, including pianists Barry Harris and Monty Alexander, bassists Ray Brown and Ron Carter, and drummer John Guerin, among others. (Gillespie’s trumpet parts are re-created by Jon Faddis.)
I owned the Bird soundtrack album in high school; it was my first exposure to Charlie Parker’s music, and it didn’t really click for me — the grafted-together recordings were seamless, to my teenage ear anyway, but bebop was just too frantic and twitchy for me. Eventually I came around; I suggest the 2009 3CD set The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes as a better entry point.
Watching the movie, I was captivated by the brilliance of the music and by the tragedy of Parker’s life. It’s a little muddled, chronologically and narratively; there are times when it takes a minute to figure out whether we’re in the “present” or a flashback, but Whitaker and Venora are incredible.
The third great jazz movie of the era was Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, released in 1990. Like Round Midnight and Bird, it’s a love letter to the music and its players, but unlike those movies, it’s not even slightly reality-based. It’s a fairy tale about jazz, with a love triangle-turned-quadrangle at its heart. Denzel Washington plays Bleek Gilliam, a brilliant trumpet player who’s also a giant asshole, dictatorial to his bandmates and bouncing between two women, repeatedly telling them that music comes first and that he won’t be faithful because “it’s a dick thing.” One, Clarke Betancourt (played by Cynda Williams), is an up-and-coming singer; the other, Indigo Downes (played by Lee’s sister Joie), is a schoolteacher who has little interest in music — she doesn’t even come to Bleek’s shows.
Bleek and his band — Wesley Snipes on saxophone! Giancarlo Esposito on piano! Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem from Lee’s previous movie, Do The Right Thing) on bass! Jeff “Tain” Watts, the only actual musician in the cast, on drums! — perform at a club called Beneath The Underdog (named for Charles Mingus’s autobiography) which is not only packed every night, but is more beautiful than any jazz club I’ve ever been inside. It looks like a theater, everyone’s dressed well and actually listening to the music … this is the fantasy part. When Lee himself, playing Bleek’s manager Giant, talks to the Flatbush brothers who own the club, though, it becomes a horror movie. Moe and Josh Flatbush, played by John and Nicholas Turturro, are two of the nastiest Jewish stereotypes in any movie made after about 1927. There’s a scene in which John Turturro is hunched over a table eating sushi, and the way Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson light him, he looks like Nosferatu.
The drama unfolds slowly but inexorably. Giant is a gambling addict seriously in debt to gangsters, and he starts borrowing money from Bleek and the other members of the band; Bleek winds up losing both women, and Clarke ends up with Snipes’ character, Shadow Henderson, which fractures the band; and it all falls apart for good when he, attempting to save Giant from a beating, is struck in the mouth with his own horn, tearing his lip open and destroying his ability to play.
Mo’ Better Blues isn’t a realistic portrayal of the life of a jazz musician, but there are moments when it cuts right to the essence of the creative spirit. In one scene, Clarke is trying to argue with Bleek about him ignoring her in favor of his work, and her voice literally fades away to nothing as he puts together the pieces of a new composition. (Unfortunately, the composition in question, performed in the next scene, isn’t great; it’s a sneering slam poetry diatribe about the vacuity of pop music and love songs, exactly the kind of snobby bullshit that turns a lot of people off to jazz. Washington makes it compelling, though; he runs the nightclub stage like he’s delivering Shakespeare.)
It’s also an incredibly beautiful movie. Dickerson’s use of color, from stage lighting to skin tones to suits and dresses, is absolutely heart-stopping at times, and the opening credit sequence uses tints in the same way classic Blue Note album covers did. Even Lee’s trademark tracking shot, where a character will seem to float through a scene, is used well.
There are a couple of classic jazz tracks heard in the movie — a section of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, a track from Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue — but the original music was performed by Branford Marsalis’s quartet with pianist Kenny Kirkland, bassist Robert Hurst, and drummer Watts, plus trumpeter Terence Blanchard. The soundtrack album also includes the Gang Starr track “Jazz Thing,” on which Marsalis plays. Marsalis was on a creative hot streak at the time, having just released one of his best albums, Crazy People Music; he’d follow the Mo’ Better Blues soundtrack with another great record, 1991’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Terence Blanchard released his self-titled debut as a leader (following several albums co-billed with saxophonist Donald Harrison) in 1991; he’s scored about 15 more Lee movies, too, and about 50 movies in all. He was nominated for Oscars for his scores to BlacKkKlansman and Da 5 Bloods, and in 2021 became the first Black composer to have an opera, Fire Shut Up In My Bones, performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
I’d never seen Round Midnight or Bird until this month; I’d seen Mo’ Better Blues years ago, but hadn’t revisited it since. Even if none of them are perfect, I wish there were more movies about jazz that were half as good as these three. Round Midnight is only available from the Criterion Collection, but Bird and Mo’ Better Blues are available for rent on Amazon. I highly recommend checking them out.
And now, new albums!
Stan Killian - "Buy Back"
Saxophonist Stan Killian is originally from Texas, and you can hear a little of the Texas blues in his playing, but he’s a longtime New Yorker with a hard-bitten hard bop style perfect for the city’s dark, crowded jazz bars. On this, his third album for Sunnyside, he’s backed by guitarist Paul Bollenbeck and a rhythm section he’s used before, bassist Corcoran Holt and drummer McClenty Hunter. Those two guys, who worked together brilliantly on Hunter’s 2018 album The Groove Hunter, are fantastic here, keeping the swing light and airy while being ready and willing to drop atomic bombs as needed. On “Buy Back,” the whole band is burning from start to finish. The title refers to a Covid-era policy where if you bought two drinks, the bar would buy you a third, and the band plays like they’re exactly three drinks in — loose, energized almost to the point of recklessness, but still very much in control and (mostly) focused. (From Brooklyn Calling, out now via Sunnyside.)
Sonic Liberation Front - "What"
Percussionist Kevin Diehl has been leading Sonic Liberation Front for about 20 years, maybe longer, with a variety of personnel. In the last few years, a very interesting lineup has come together that includes saxophonist Elliot Levin (who used to play with Cecil Taylor), violinist Veronica Jurkiewicz, flutist Jameka Gordon, and bassist Matt Engle. For this new album, Diehl commissioned material from reeds player and composer Oliver Lake, a founding member of St. Louis’ Black Arts Group and an all-around avant-garde musical genius who sets no boundaries on his art. The one time I saw him live, he had a steel drummer in his band and was not doing anything remotely kitschy or “island”-y with it; the music was abstract and thrilling. Anyway, the quintet is augmented by four vocalists: soprano Shanon Chua, alto Chaela Harris, tenor Ravi Seenarine, and baritone Michael Ford. Lake composed and arranged the music, but his horn is absent. On “What,” which opens the album, the singers chant simple “doo-doo” patterns as the band rattles out a bouncing groove and Levin takes a fierce free jazz solo, followed by a highly electrified response from Jurkiewicz. It’s like free jazz meets fusion meets spiritual jazz meets funk. (From Justice: The Vocal Works Of Oliver Lake, out now via High Two.)
I AM - "Omniscient (Mycelium)"
Saxophonist Isaiah Collier is only in his mid-twenties, but he’s staking his claim to the spiritual jazz throne, Midwest division. In 2021, his album Cosmic Transitions stunned a lot of listeners with its Coltrane-ish intensity and deep emotional impact, delivered by a quartet featuring pianist Mike King, bassist Jeremiah Hunt, and drummer Michael Shekwoaga Ode. That was followed by a 13-minute rendition of the spiritual “Lift Every Voice And Sing” (aka the Black National Anthem), recorded at the same September 2020 session. Nine months later, Collier and Ode went back into the studio as the duo I AM to record Beyond. They’re the only two players throughout, except on the first track, where poet and sound healer Jimmy Chan delivers a sermon-like introduction as Ode and Collier play percussion, shakers, and gongs.
This is a powerhouse record for several reasons. For one, Ode is a thunderous drummer more interested in laying down almost tribal/trance rhythms than exploring time. Collier is a forceful blower, but he’s also kind of a riff-oriented guy, driving a phrase into the ground or returning to it again and again after each explosive utterance, not unlike Shabaka Hutchings or James Brandon Lewis. Thus, this disc has more in common with Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake’s 2004 duo album Back Together Again or Lewis’s duo with Chad Taylor, Radiant Imprints, than John Coltrane and Rashied Ali’s Interstellar Space. On “Omniscient (Mycelium),” the album’s penultimate track, they’re both absolutely roaring for the full nine minutes, but at the same time there’s a tight discipline to their interactions. Ode’s drumming is simultaneously beat and solo, and Collier’s shrieks and roars are inextricably bound to the rhythm. (From Beyond, out now via Division 81.)
Binker Golding - "(Take me to the) Wide open lows"
Saxophonist Binker Golding is best known as one-half of the duo Binker & Moses, with drummer Moses Boyd, but he expresses very different sides of himself on the albums he puts out under his own name. Although Golding is from London, Dream Like A Dogwood Wild Boy is some kind of freakish amalgam of blues, country, and heartland rock. How he decided this was the sound he wanted to explore, I couldn’t possibly even theorize. All I can tell you is that in practice, on the album’s opening track “(Take me to the) Wide open lows,” the group — Golding on tenor sax, guitarist Billy Adamson, pianist Sarah Tandy, bassist Daniel Casimir, and drummer Sam Jones — sound like a cross between Keith Jarrett’s 1970s quartet and, like, fucking Kansas. Big hooks, blow-the-roof-off sax soloing, almost prog-rock melodies but all played on acoustic instruments…it’s really weird at first, but the longer it goes on (and the track is almost ten minutes long), the more it…works, somehow. (From Dream Like A Dogwood Wild Boy, out now via Gearbox.)
Freddie Hubbard - "The Intrepid Fox"
Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard gave an astonishing performance at the ORTF studio in Paris in March 1973 which is being released on double vinyl by the WeWantSounds label — one long track per LP side. The band is absolutely killer: Junior Cook on sax and flute, George Cables on Fender Rhodes, Kent Brinkley on bass and Michael Carvin on drums. Hubbard traveled between worlds — he was a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and made some incredible hard bop records of his own for Blue Note in the 1960s, but he was also the only musician to play on both Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and John Coltrane’s Ascension. In 1970 and 1971, he made the albums Red Clay and Straight Life for the CTI label, pioneering a highly commercial (and very successful) but still surprisingly adventurous fusion style. In concert, though, as this performance of “The Intrepid Fox” from Red Clay demonstrates, he was dealing out extraordinarily high-level electric jazz, swinging hard as hell and aiming for the sky with his solos. This version of “The Intrepid Fox” is almost twice as long as the studio version, and it blazes from beginning to end. (From Music Is Here, out now via Wewantsounds.)
Linda Sikhakhane - "Inner Freedom (Revisited)"
Saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane grew up in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa, and connected with Nduduzo Makhathini when he moved to Johannesburg after college. He played on Makhathini’s 2014 album Mother Tongue (and this year’s ,em>In The Spirit Of Ntu), and the pianist produced or co-produced each of Sikhakhane’s albums, of which this is the third. It’s primarily recorded with a quartet including pianist Lucca Fries, bassist Fabian Iannone, and drummer Jonas Ruther, with guests on several tracks: trumpeter Matthias Spillmann, percussionist El Hadji Ngari Ndong, and vocalists Paras and Anna Widauer. (Full disclosure: Sikhakhane asked me for help getting this record released by a US label, and I connected him with Ropeadope, but I didn’t ask for or receive any money.) Sikhakhane is very much in a classic spiritual jazz zone on Isambulo, taking influence from John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner; on “Inner Freedom (Revisited),” a reworking of a tune from his first album, 2017’s Two Sides, One Mirror, he plays keening soprano sax lines before ceding the spotlight to Fries, whose piano has a powerful, Randy Weston-esque flow. (From Isambulo, out now via Ropeadope.)
Matthew Shipp Trio - "Stop The World"
Matthew Shipp’s trio featuring bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker seems to go from strength to strength. Each of their albums is different, but they’re all pieces of one big puzzle, mapping out a world of sound. Hence, World Construct, the title of his sixth album with this unit (plus two more backing saxophonist Rich Halley). Baker is only intermittently present on this record, and on the tracks where he’s heard most strongly, the titles — “Jazz Posture,” “Abandoned,” the message almost seems to be that free jazz piano trio eruption is a style of music that Shipp no longer feels much kinship with. He’s great at it, but it’s just one tool in his kit, and one he rarely feels the need to bring out anymore. “Stop The World,” on the other hand, is a duo with Bisio (they’ve recorded three albums in that configuration), a gentle ballad that sounds like the two men are feeling their way through a dark room, hands outstretched, grazing mysterious objects, orienting themselves, moving forward, and periodically exchanging thoughts about what they sense around them. (From World Construct, out now via ESP-Disk’.)
Aaron Parks/Matt Brewer/Eric Harland - "Cartoon Element"
In August 2021, pianist Aaron Parks went into the studio with two longtime friends, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Eric Harland. They recorded versions of four of Parks’ compositions and two each by Brewer and Harland, plus a couple of standards — “Body And Soul,” “All The Things You Are” — and versions of Frank Kimbrough’s “Centering” and Bobby Hutcherson’s “Montara,” neither of which are particularly well-known tunes, but work perfectly in context. The whole point of the project, which ultimately yielded two albums, was to experience the joy of making music with friends. Parks says on his Bandcamp page, which is the only place you can find this music, “We didn’t rehearse, or talk much about the music, or listen back after takes; after such a long period of pandemic isolation and remote music-making, it felt restorative to just play in real time without any agenda. The three of us have been friends for over twenty years now and have a deep history both on and off the bandstand, and I think that you can hear that sense of fellowship in the music. There’s something playful and imperfect and joyous and raw in these recordings, and we hope they bring some measure of happiness to you as you listen.” There’s not much I can add to that. “Cartoon Element” is a Parks composition, and it has some of the hallmarks of his work, namely a feeling of wanting to go big without being cheesy, and an openness to a rock ’n’ roll sense of dynamics while maintaining fidelity to jazz virtues. It swings hard at first; Brewer takes a seriously forceful solo after the opening fanfare. But when Parks comes in again, he starts picking the music apart, and Harland complements him by chopping the rhythm into tiny bits. (From Volume Two, out now via Bandcamp.)
Cecil Taylor - "Respiration Part One"
Cecil Taylor began delivering solo piano performances sometime in the second half of the 1960s. I don’t know when the first one was, but this newly released recording is one of the earliest. It comes from an October 1968 performance in Warsaw, Poland, recorded by Polish radio. The only earlier solo Cecil recording is Praxis, recorded in Italy in July 1968, released on double vinyl on a long-defunct Praxis label in 1982 and never reissued. Taylor’s pianistic language expanded and developed over the nearly five decades he spent giving solo concerts, but in its key aspects it was fully formed from the beginning. This set features long unbroken streams of notes that only resolve themselves after the fact; sweeping romantic flourishes juxtaposed against pounding atonal chords; and figures that seem to hover in the air, implying some kind of internal rhythm that the listener is not privy to, but can guess at. At several moments, you can almost imagine some of what he’s playing resolving into bluesy riffs or conventional songlike melodies. None of that happens, though. He’s going deep inside the piano, and deep inside himself, and the fact that you, the listener, are present is at best a secondary consideration. It’s brilliant stuff, though, so take it on its own terms and you’ll be glad you did. (From Respiration, out now via Fundacja Słuchaj.)
Julius Rodriguez - "Where Grace Abounds"
I’ve talked a lot in this column and elsewhere about the idea that jazz played by musicians under 40 is fundamentally different from jazz that came before. This is for one reason: the rise and cultural domination of hip-hop. Older artists have grappled with hip-hop in one way or another, but it was always about coming to grips with a new thing. Artists who have never known a world without hip-hop, by contrast, have a different approach to time — young drummers swing in loops — to melody, to harmony, and basically everything else that makes music music. Julius Rodriguez was playing Duke Ellington tunes at New York’s Smalls at 11, but that doesn’t impress me (don’t get me started on Joey Alexander, the last kid-phenom pianist). A few years later, he was a student at Juilliard … but he dropped out to tour with A$AP Rocky. He’s 23 now, and he’s straddling the worlds of jazz and hip-hop much the way someone like Christian Scott or Kassa Overall does, viewing them not as disparate forces to be combined but as elements of one big sound. Do what works for the track. This video for “Where Grace Abounds” is fantastic; the performance by dancer Joyce Edwards is perfectly attuned to the music, which has a kind of classical-meets-gospel feel, with drums (cymbals, mostly) that imply crescendos without declaring them, until about three minutes in, when a head-knocking beat starts, and wordless vocals and a trumpet enter, and the whole thing expands outward like a flower blooming in slow motion. (From Let Sound Tell All, out now via Verve.)