One default reaction to the musical form called “free jazz” — Ornette Coleman’s phrase for this improvised, experimental style of jazz — has long been that it’s “not music.” This concise but cogent documentary directed by Tom Surgal is crammed with exhilarating sounds, moving reminiscences and stimulating arguments that it is not just music, but vital music.
Gary Giddins, a critic who’s equally at home explicating Bing Crosby as Cecil Taylor, points out at the film’s beginning that someone playing the blues on a porch can make their phrases 12 bars or 14 bars or whatever at will. In group playing, certain agreements have to be met.
One basis of free jazz is to approach ensemble playing without conventional agreements. Hence, Coleman’s practically leaderless double quartet approach on the 1961 “Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation” album. Much consideration is also given here to Coleman’s break with bebop in insisting one could improvise without chords. His playing sounded out of tune to traditional jazz musicians not yet conversant with microtones.
This sounds a little dry, but the movie is anything but. Among other highlights are incredibly well-curated archival footage and contemporary interviews that allow the viewer to briefly commune with some beautiful souls, including Coleman, Sam Rivers, John Coltrane, Rashied Ali, Don Cherry, Carla Bley. “Whatever he did was the right thing to do,” Bley, now 85, says of Cherry, who died in 1995.
Most of these players are Black, and their innovations in the ’60s had trouble gaining traction in the United States. So they flocked to Paris, and the movie is scrupulous in chronicling how the European movement “free improvisation” grew into something allied with, but distinct from, what the U.S. founders created.
As a fan of improvisational music myself, the 88 minutes of this movie constituted a too-short heaven on earth. I’d binge on an expanded series, honestly.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes. In theaters.