"Imagine The Sound" is my favorite jazz documentary and is one of my favorite documentaries of all time. It's the most informative ANYTHING I've come across in terms of describing and discussing free and avant-garde jazz. The film, which was the first feature documentary made by Ron Mann ("Grass", "Comicbook Confidential"), was actually made in 1981, over a decade after the explosion of experimental jazz. Focusing on four important and celebrated figures (Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Paul Bley and Bill Dixon) allowing them to reflect on their careers and those around them that, in many ways, defined the sound of '60s jazz.
Plus, there's music. The music in this film is brilliant. The new and original pieces by all four of them are surprisingly fresh and inspired despite it being recorded in the stagnant early '80s. Simple edits with interestingly framed shots work to the directors advantage as the music is emphasized and never distracted from by the film-making.
The interviews are all really great as well. Cecil Taylor mixes splashes of profundity with a delivery that is both conversational and challenging. Like his music, it's not enough to just listen to it and let it wash over you. Even his conversation is presented in a way that forces you to work to get the inner meaning or at least whatever meaning he's trying to get across. His solo piano performances are whacked out and at times have as much to do with performance art as they do with music. One of the film's high points is Taylor reading one of his freaked out, stream of consciousness poems.
Paul Bley is also a bit strange in his delivery. His choice of words is strange and intriguing as if it were written by David Mamett or something. But this isn't pretension. He's just a little off kilter with the rest of the world. His stories are brilliant and self-deprecating descriptions of the early days at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles and the Five Spot in New York with Ornette Coleman and the scene that would eventually produce the album "Free Jazz". Bley's solo piano performances are great deconstructions of familiar musical territory and the withdrawal of aesthetic tools of standard time and tonality.
Archie Shepp is exactly what you expect and want. With one foot in the musical revolution and one foot in the political revolution, Shepp speaks with equal adoration and respect for Coltrane and Malcolm X. In some ways, his music is the most accessible of the four as he in some ways bridges part of the gap between Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. It's great to hear his candid stories like how he found his style by trying to be like Coltrane and eventually giving up because he couldn't do it.
Bill Dixon is the least known of the three and for whatever reason, the most fascinating. Like Shepp, he developed his style by playing with Taylor. But his trumpet playing has more to do with almost industrial sounds of the city. It's car horns blending into soothing other world rhythms pierced by Morse code blips. His interviews are so lucid and down to Earth, you find yourself clinging to every word. Not only does he accurately describe a loft scene that included all the big players like Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy hanging out and jamming with other musicians many of whom were never heard from again. But he also connects it to everything else that was going on in New York City at the time like the Judson Dance Theater where Rauschenberg was doing work. The connection between the jazz avant-garde of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy and the artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns is never talked about. But there it is, documented in this film.
Really, this is a great film even if the music isn't your cup of tea. It may be a little difficult to relate to some of the music. But the stories are great and they do get across the sincerity and intentions of the artists, which may cause the listener to further, explore the free jazz of the '60s.
But then again, there are only four artists covered here. It's great and engaging and I would recommend it to anyone. But it does leave me feeling like there is a sad lack of good, if not great, jazz documentaries.
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