Jazz steps lively into future

INTERVIEW

Robert Glasper
Doesn’t hold back: Robert Glasper

Roger Mitchell speaks to producer of the documentary Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense, which will be screened on May 2, at 4pm at ACMI, Fed Square, Melbourne.

WOULD Charlie Parker turn in his grave? Probably not. The language is a bit strong, but Bird would surely have heard worse in his day.

Pianist Robert Glasper is talking about jazz and he doesn’t hold back: “Charlie Parker wouldn’t want some motherf—– playing the same sh– he was playing. He’d say, ‘Why are you playing this sh–? I already played that.’ ”

In Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense, a 93-minute documentary which has its Australian premiere next Sunday as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Glasper succinctly puts the case for musicians to move on from the past.

As avant-garde jazz pianist Matthew Shipp puts it more gently in the film, “You can’t seek the living among the dead.”

Producer John W. Comerford and co-directors Michael Rivoira, Lars Larson and Peter J. Vogt recorded 130 hours of interviews with more than 75 jazz musicians and 30 hours of super 16mm filmed performance over seven years for Icons Among Us in venues across the US and Europe.

The result is a riveting feature film and a longer, four-part series that is being rolled out worldwide.

When Icons premiered last year at New York’s Lincoln Center, home of the Wynton Marsalis’s “Young Lions” group of neo-traditionalist post-boppers — who see future jazz sounding a lot like its past — it was criticised for not taking a stance.

Comerford disagrees: “Our strategy was to listen as deeply as possible to each of the musicians interviewed. And in making the film we have learned that the essential element to furthering jazz development is to create dialogue, and in that friction is where the energy and the life of it resides.

“The film speaks very clearly, particularly through (trumpeter/composer) Terence Blanchard, who has the last word. He says that we’ve moved on and changed and we’re never, ever going back.

“Pete Vogt is in China right now with the film and apparently the Chinese are apparently bonkers over jazz. What happens with Chinese artists and jazz, given thousands of years of traditional Chinese music, I can’t wait to hear what comes out of that country in the next five years. It may even influence artists from New Orleans.”

The producer also takes issue with jazz writer Paul de Barros, who argues on camera that the problem of jazz today is that it does not connect with modern culture in the way that Parker or John Coltrane did with black freedom or jazz in the 1950s did with immigration and the civil rights movement in America.

De Barros says, “We do not understand the connection between (guitarist) Bill Frisell and the society.”

Comerford says one of the film’s counterpoints is that while De Barros is talking, Frisell is improvising on Bob Dylan’s Masters of War.

“I was in the room when we filmed that cut and that was during a time of intense conflict in Iraq. Frisell was commenting and expressing emotion artistically. The feeling in the room was just extraordinary. People were just locked in.”

Icons Among Us screens as part of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image “Future Traditions: Jazz on Film” program.

Details available from Melbourne International Jazz Festival
or Australian Centre for the Moving Image

An abridged version of this article was published in the Sunday Herald Sun Play liftout on Sunday, April 25.

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