Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Misha Mengelberg + Frank Gratkowski Marc Minsker
Misha Mengelberg + Frank Gratkowski Marc Minsker                   Marc Minsker©2007

Marc Minsker is what the Brits would call an enthusiast: He plays guitar and other instruments; he’s an avid record collector; and he gets out to gigs (He used to put on improvised music gigs as well, first in South Carolina and later in DC.). For the past two years, Minsker has made the pilgrimage from DC to the Nicklesdorf Konfrontationen for the full immersion – camping out; catching every set from start to finish. This year, he took a Mini DV camera, and obtained Konfrontationen producer Hans Falb’s permission to tape a five-minute segment from each set.

He brought his laptop-assembled DVD compilation with him for the most recent of our occasional after-work hangs. The first set of the festival paired pianist Misha Mengelberg and saxophonist Frank Gratkowski. What was immediately striking about the shot was a huge wooden pillar divided the frame roughly in two, an unacceptable obstruction in a commercial video. In this verité context, however, it made eminent design sense. As Minsker tightened the shot and panned between the two, the pillar became something of a metaphorical wall, like that in a confessional booth; or the interior set of a play like Death of a Salesman. It underlined the concept of playing apart, which was fitting now that Mengelberg is its most revered living exponent.

Because it was an absorbing encounter between two veteran improvisers, it was something of a shock when it suddenly ended at approximately the five-minute mark. The point here is not that Minsker kept his word; in fact, he said it became progressively harder to tape five minutes of each set because the act of taping removed him from fully experiencing the music. Rather, it is that improvised music can end arbitrarily and abruptly, and its capacity to do so is one reason why some people listen so intensely.

The obstructed view that became a visual design element; the imposed duration that essentially edited the music; all of this coalesced into a document that was oddly true to its subject and resonated long after my one viewing. In fact, this clip repeatedly came to mind when viewing a slew of jazz DVDs just released for the holiday shopping season. There was immediacy in the Nicklesdorf footage that was missing on the multi-camera, European TV studio shoots that make up the bulk of the latest batch of Naxos/Jazz Icons DVDs featuring Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus, Wes Montgomery and Sarah Vaughn.

Though they are brimming with great music, watching these DVDs almost became a proposition similar to watching NASCAR: You end up wanting the musicians to do something that will cause at least a glitch, if not a full-scale wreck in the control booth. One of the best segments of the Montgomery DVD – a collection of Dutch, Belgian and British broadcasts with local rhythm sections including such luminaries as Stan Tracey and Han Bennink – is the rehearsal that ensues when Montgomery realizes that pianist Pim Jacobs doesn’t know “The End of a Love Affair.” Wisely, the director just keeps tape rolling and the cameras on task. The cutaways of Bennink waiting this out, chin on hand, elbow on snare, are priceless. But, the segment conveys a real lesson about how musicians interact; Montgomery is casual while running down the changes, and refining the voicings; Jacobs and his bass-playing brother, Ruud, give each other occasional glances as they get it down. The bottom line is that the quartet hits with the tune after just a few minutes and it’s worth the wait.

Certainly, no one in the Belgian RTBF remote truck foresaw how unseasonably cool weather would contribute to the Coltrane Quartet’s outdoor concert at Combian-La-Tour in August ’65, but they fully exploited the unexpected clouds of steam that emanated from the musicians as they stormed their way through the seldom-heard “Vigil” and expansive takes on “Naima” and “My Favorite Things.” Even present-day computer-generated effects could not match the almost archetypal power of seeing Elvin Jones pummeling his kit, the aura of condensation backlit around him. Even though the DVD features a recently unearthed 1960 German TV set with, among others, Stan Getz and Oscar Peterson, that contains a noteworthy special effect – an oscilloscopic pattern that pours out of the bell of Coltrane’s horn – it’s mere kid’s play next to forces of nature colliding at Combian-La-Tour..

Television on both sides of the Atlantic employed wonderful contrivances in presenting jazz in the 1960s. Arguably, none top Holland AVRO’s introduction to the 1964 club date included in Jazz Icon’s Gordon collection. It comes off as something of a prequel to Round Midnight. It opens with a night exterior, an empty, old-city block at a diagonal, the initially shadowy man soon revealed as the younger Dale Turner. He enters the club to perform; the rhythm section’s warming up the house. Then there’s a couple of fumbles. The first occurs when Gordon takes off his hat and trench coat and hands them to the bartender, who soon realizes he has nowhere to put them, and ends up just standing there, holding them as Gordon takes the stage. Gordon is initially off-mic as he begins one of his great introductions, but he glides through it all. By the end of Gordon’s barnstorming solo on “Night in Tunisia,” backed by a “house band” comprised of pianist George Gruntz, bassist Guy Pederesn and drummer Daniel Humair, we know why Dexter Gordon was a star. By the end of the cadenza, we know why Dale Turner was a legend.

Thankfully, directors now value authenticity over star power; the better ones also avoid pedantry like the plague. Anaïs Prosaïc’s 2006 documentary, Ethiogroove (Ethiosonics, an affiliate of the Ethiopiques, the important CD series documenting the golden years of Ethiopian music), does both in both educating its audience about Ethiopian music, and in documenting legendary singer Mahmoud Ahmed’s Banlieues Bleues festival performance with Either/Orchestra. Prosaïc does not just skillfully cut between performance, rehearsal and interview footage, with occasional use of archival photos; she manages to present Ahmed both as a man somewhat puzzled by the world’s interest in his music, and as a highly stylized performer who maintains a regal bearing even when he shimmies his shoulders with a bemused smile. With E/O’s Russ Gershon providing the historical and aesthetic contexts for the music, Ahmed speaks to the universality of the situation, a singer who has to work with a band, dependent upon rehearsals and charts to make it work. Even though the DVD also includes the sublime chanteuse Tsèdènia Gèbrè-Marqos, and some stellar performances by E/O, Ahmed’s the star, period.

Even when musicians have even an iota of Ahmed’s magnetism they can be persuasive on DVD because of their wit and pluck, Trio Derome Guilbeault Tanguay’s straight-up concert film, Ėtymologie (Ambiances Magnétiques), and eyenoises … the paris movie, director Süsanna Schonberg 1994 doc about Tim Berne’s Bloodcount (released with 2 CDs in the Screwgun collection, Seconds), are cases in point. The fact that the Quebecois trio simply burns through a program predominated by chestnuts by Dolphy, Waller and others notwithstanding, it is the trio’s Marxist chemistry (that would be Groucho, not Karl) that keeps the viewer glued to the screen Saxophonist/flutist Jean Derome, grins as if he’s about to spring a well-planned jape; drummer Pierre Tanguay, exudes mirth even when he’s burning down the house; and bassist Normand Guilbeault is the straight man essential to the set-up. Schonberg takes almost the opposite tact in documenting Bloodcount’s Instant Chavirés gig, using extreme close-ups, seemingly incongruent cutaways and bold framing, to create a visual counterpoint to Berne’s set-long “eyecontact.” Berne and his crew – drummer Jim Black, guitarist Marc Ducret, bassist Michael Formanek, and saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed – are deadpan by comparison, but the off-stage footage and the occasional glimpses of Ducret’s sci-fi glasses, Formanek’s quit-pointing-that-thing-at-me glare, and Black’s raised eyebrows, give the piece a human feel almost despite its visual style.

Regardless of a DVD’s subject, it is that feel that will keep you watching after the five-minute mark.

Henceforth Records

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