KANSAS CITY was Robert Altman's mosaic of his birthplace, set during the depression. The disappointing narrative threads (concerning crime and politics) are far less entertaining than the jazz jam sessions which are sprinkled during the picture. These live-to-film sequences are interesting technically, as well as great showcases for today's "young lions" in jazz (Joshua Redman, Don Byron, et al).
JAZZ 34 is the companion film to KANSAS CITY. Running an hour long, it is actually superior to its sister film, as it succeeds as being a purely impressionistic work. There is no mediocre "plot" to get in the way of seeing these superb musicians lay it all out. Between numbers, there are minute sequences in which an onscreen narrator muses about certain eras in Kansas City during that era. At first, even these moments may seem out of place, but what Altman is doing is creating an aural canvas of his home town. This film is not only a valuable concert of today's young jazz impresarios where they do a creditable job of evoking the musical styles of the 1930's, but it also succeeds as "radio for the eyes"; it scores in creating the excitement of the era, and through the simplest of means.
Although JAZZ 34 is a decidedly minor work by today's greatest living director, it is essential to those enamoured with his impressive filmography. It remains one of his most subtle, personal films.
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