July 7, 2022

The listing of really nice jazz films — dramas, I imply, not documentaries — is surprisingly brief. Most films about jazz kinda suck, actually, and lately, there have been some actually unhealthy ones, like La La Land, Whiplash, Miles Forward, and Bolden. (A minimum of the soundtracks to the latter two had been value listening to … as soon as.) Issues weren’t a lot better prior to now, both; the one two older jazz-related films I actually like are Paris Blues, with Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier, and The Man With The Golden Arm, which is a noir film that’s about unlawful playing as a lot as jazz. (Frank Sinatra performs a junkie ex-con card vendor who needs to be a giant band drummer.) One of many supporting characters in Candy Scent Of Success, which is an unimaginable film that you need to completely see when you by no means have, is a jazz guitarist, seen performing with Chico Hamilton’s band (the quintet’s actual guitarist, John Pisano, recorded the music for the soundtrack), however the film’s probably not about that. Equally, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Membership is best than you’ll have heard, nevertheless it’s half about music and half about gangsterism, and its horrible musical-fantasy ending blows any goodwill earned.

One of many best films about jazz has just lately been launched on Blu-Ray by the Criterion Assortment. Bertrand Tavernier’s Spherical Midnight, from 1986, is a wonderful tribute to the music, and to 1 legendary participant particularly. Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who had by no means acted earlier than, stars as Dale Turner, a troubled genius who flees to Paris from New York in 1959, pondering he can get a contemporary begin. Earlier than he leaves, although, a fellow musician says, “You realize who’ll be ready for you while you get there? You.”

Turner manages to get a residency on the Blue Notice, a small basement membership, because of a lady named Buttercup who serves as his minder and de facto supervisor, ensuring he doesn’t drink and gathering his cash for him. The band, assembled by pianist Herbie Hancock (whose character is called Eddie Wayne), contains John McLaughlin on guitar, Pierre Michelot on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums; vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and singer Lonette McKee present up as company. They’re additionally “in character,” not enjoying themselves, although they don’t get an entire lot of dialogue by hook or by crook. Later, there’s a studio session that options Hancock, Shorter, trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, and bassist Ron Carter, and within the movie’s remaining act, Turner returns to New York and performs with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianist Cedar Walton, Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. The performances are uniformly unbelievable, and Tavernier lets them run roughly in full.

Turner befriends a French graphic designer named Francis, who lives in a tiny house together with his daughter Berangere. The connection is exploitive at first, with the saxophonist leaning on this starry-eyed fan to purchase him the drinks nobody else will present. Quickly, although, they get nearer, and so as to assist the saxophonist kick the booze that’s placing him within the hospital and jail, Francis lets him stay with him. Ultimately, they transfer into a bigger place (because of a mortgage from Francis’s long-suffering ex-wife), and Turner cleans up. He’s enjoying higher and feeling happier, and decides he’s sturdy sufficient to return to New York and make a comeback. Francis accompanies him briefly, however has to return house, and shortly after, he receives a telegram telling him that Turner has died.

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The film seems unimaginable on Blu-Ray, and Martin Scorsese has a hilarious cameo as Turner’s supervisor, Goodley, within the New York scenes. Dexter Gordon, although, is superb within the lead function. He’s obtained a pointy humorousness, however a deep melancholy, too, and his struggles together with his music and the poverty endemic to the jazz life really feel very actual. His portrayal of a half-broken man, basically form however obsessed together with his music and without end unsure about his place on the planet, is three-dimensional and fascinating. And that is largely to his personal credit score: Gordon rewrote a lot of the script to make it extra correct. He was nominated for an Oscar for his efficiency, although he misplaced to Paul Newman (who was up for The Shade Of Cash, directed by … Martin Scorsese).

There have been two soundtrack albums – the primary, merely referred to as Spherical Midnight, after which a sequel, The Different Aspect Of Spherical Midnight. Collectively, they characteristic Gordon’s remaining studio recordings, they usually’re each on streaming companies.

Spherical Midnight was the primary in a trio of good-to-great jazz films launched over the course of 5 years. The following one was Chicken, Clint Eastwood’s 1988 biography of/tribute to Charlie Parker. The film facilities round Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Parker, which, given the myths which have constructed up across the man within the greater than six many years since his dying, may have actually modified perceptions of him. Parker is commonly regarded by these outdoors jazz who’re conscious of him in any respect as a shambling junkie who by some means managed to be an excellent saxophonist. And as a lot as he was beloved by different musicians, he was a extremely smart, cultured and verbose man who was fascinated by all types of music and studied extensively.

Parker’s strategies concerned choosing melodies and harmonies aside, taking them all the way down to their tiniest elements and reassembling them in new methods. He was notably captivated by a number of the avant-garde classical music of the time, and really a lot needed to review with Igor Stravinsky. There’s a scene within the film the place a drunk Parker exhibits up on the composer’s entrance gate late one night time and rings the bell, however shouldn’t be admitted. Whitaker performs him as somebody who appears nearly bipolar — he’s laughing and joking and seducing his spouse Chan (performed by Diane Venora) one second, then roaring like an anguished bear or clutching his intestine in agony (he suffered from bleeding ulcers) the subsequent. However he’s clearly good, albeit self-sabotaging.

Whitaker received the Greatest Actor award on the 1988 Cannes Movie Competition for his portrayal of Parker, and was nominated for a Golden Globe, as effectively. Eastwood received a Golden Globe for Greatest Director.

Chicken is an ’80s film that offers with racism and mainstream society’s common disrespect for jazz and jazz musicians, so there are a number of on-the-nose speeches from Dizzy Gillespie (performed by Samuel E. Wright) and an unidentified older musician, the latter of whom advises Parker to remain in Paris moderately than return to New York. However Eastwood — who as a youngster within the Forties noticed Parker play — by no means actually feels that the music requires defending; he’s about displaying you its glory, and like Tavernier, he does that by together with prolonged efficiency sequences, which in a moderately outstanding technical achievement for the time used beforehand unknown recordings of Parker, provided by Chan. His solos had been digitally extracted, and new backing tracks performed by present-day musicians, together with pianists Barry Harris and Monty Alexander, bassists Ray Brown and Ron Carter, and drummer John Guerin, amongst others. (Gillespie’s trumpet elements are re-created by Jon Faddis.)

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I owned the Chicken soundtrack album in highschool; it was my first publicity to Charlie Parker’s music, and it didn’t actually click on for me — the grafted-together recordings had been seamless, to my teenage ear anyway, however bebop was simply too frantic and twitchy for me. Ultimately I got here round; I recommend the 2009 3CD set The Full Savoy & Dial Grasp Takes as a greater entry level.

Watching the film, I used to be captivated by the brilliance of the music and by the tragedy of Parker’s life. It’s just a little muddled, chronologically and narratively; there are occasions when it takes a minute to determine whether or not we’re within the “current” or a flashback, however Whitaker and Venora are unimaginable.

The third nice jazz film of the period was Spike Lee’s Mo’ Higher Blues, launched in 1990. Like Spherical Midnight and Chicken, it’s a love letter to the music and its gamers, however not like these films, it’s not even barely reality-based. It’s a fairy story about jazz, with a love triangle-turned-quadrangle at its coronary heart. Denzel Washington performs Bleek Gilliam, an excellent trumpet participant who’s additionally an enormous asshole, dictatorial to his bandmates and bouncing between two ladies, repeatedly telling them that music comes first and that he received’t be devoted as a result of “it’s a dick factor.” One, Clarke Betancourt (performed by Cynda Williams), is an up-and-coming singer; the opposite, Indigo Downes (performed by Lee’s sister Joie), is a schoolteacher who has little curiosity in music — she doesn’t even come to Bleek’s exhibits.

Bleek and his band — Wesley Snipes on saxophone! Giancarlo Esposito on piano! Invoice Nunn (Radio Raheem from Lee’s earlier film, Do The Proper Factor) on bass! Jeff “Tain” Watts, the one precise musician within the forged, on drums! — carry out at a membership referred to as Beneath The Underdog (named for Charles Mingus’s autobiography) which isn’t solely packed each night time, however is extra lovely than any jazz membership I’ve ever been inside. It seems like a theater, everybody’s dressed effectively and really listening to the music … that is the fantasy half. When Lee himself, enjoying Bleek’s supervisor Large, talks to the Flatbush brothers who personal the membership, although, it turns into a horror film. Moe and Josh Flatbush, performed by John and Nicholas Turturro, are two of the nastiest Jewish stereotypes in any film made after about 1927. There’s a scene through which John Turturro is hunched over a desk consuming sushi, and the way in which Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson gentle him, he seems like Nosferatu.

The drama unfolds slowly however inexorably. Large is a playing addict severely in debt to gangsters, and he begins borrowing cash from Bleek and the opposite members of the band; Bleek winds up shedding each ladies, and Clarke finally ends up with Snipes’ character, Shadow Henderson, which fractures the band; and all of it falls aside for good when he, making an attempt to save lots of Large from a beating, is struck within the mouth together with his personal horn, tearing his lip open and destroying his skill to play.

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Mo’ Higher Blues isn’t a sensible portrayal of the lifetime of a jazz musician, however there are moments when it cuts proper to the essence of the artistic spirit. In a single scene, Clarke is attempting to argue with Bleek about him ignoring her in favor of his work, and her voice actually fades away to nothing as he places collectively the items of a brand new composition. (Sadly, the composition in query, carried out within the subsequent scene, isn’t nice; it’s a sneering slam poetry diatribe concerning the vacuity of pop music and love songs, precisely the form of snobby bullshit that turns lots of people off to jazz. Washington makes it compelling, although; he runs the nightclub stage like he’s delivering Shakespeare.)

It’s additionally an extremely lovely film. Dickerson’s use of colour, from stage lighting to pores and skin tones to fits and clothes, is totally heart-stopping at instances, and the opening credit score sequence makes use of tints in the identical approach basic Blue Notice album covers did. Even Lee’s trademark monitoring shot, the place a personality will appear to drift by a scene, is used effectively.

There are a few basic jazz tracks heard within the film — a piece of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, a observe from Miles Davis’s Sort Of Blue — however the authentic music was carried out by Branford Marsalis’s quartet with pianist Kenny Kirkland, bassist Robert Hurst, and drummer Watts, plus trumpeter Terence Blanchard. The soundtrack album additionally contains the Gang Starr observe “Jazz Factor,” on which Marsalis performs. Marsalis was on a artistic sizzling streak on the time, having simply launched considered one of his greatest albums, Loopy Individuals Music; he’d observe the Mo’ Higher Blues soundtrack with one other nice document, 1991’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not But Born. Terence Blanchard launched his self-titled debut as a frontrunner (following a number of albums co-billed with saxophonist Donald Harrison) in 1991; he’s scored about 15 extra Lee films, too, and about 50 films in all. He was nominated for Oscars for his scores to BlacKkKlansman and Da 5 Bloods, and in 2021 turned the primary Black composer to have an opera, Hearth Shut Up In My Bones, carried out at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

I’d by no means seen Spherical Midnight or Chicken till this month; I’d seen Mo’ Higher Blues years in the past, however hadn’t revisited it since. Even when none of them are excellent, I want there have been extra films about jazz that had been half pretty much as good as these three. Spherical Midnight is simply obtainable from the Criterion Assortment, however Chicken and Mo’ Higher Blues can be found for lease on Amazon. I extremely suggest checking them out.

And now, new albums!