A Bounty of Documentaries

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The Black Men of Labor Club leads a second line parade, from the documentary City of a Million Dreams.

(Photo: Courtesy City of a Million Dreams)

Last year was a good one for jazz and jazz-adjacent documentaries. Most prominent among them are the well-distributed Prime Video docuseries Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity and the October PBS American Masters episode “Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes.” But we’ve also included five additional 2023 films here that jazz fans of all stripes can appreciate.

Elis and Tom

Shorter appears briefly in Elis and Tom, a multi-hued portrait of Brazilian superstars Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina. Analogous to Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back, it’s framed around previously unissued verité footage of the making of their revered 1973 album for which the film is titled.

Shorter’s haunting account of a planned, but never executed, recording in 1981, a year before Regina died, joins testimonies from surviving participants and witnesses — guitarist Helio Delmiro, drummer Paolo Braga and pianist-arranger Cesar Camargo Mariano, director Roberto de Oliveira, impresario André Midani, producer Roberto Menescal and engineer Humberto Gatica, as well as João Marcelo Bôscoli (Regina’s son with her first husband, Ronaldo Bôscoli) and Beth Jobim (Jobim’s daughter, and the only woman who speaks) — that illuminate the album’s historical context and musical nuances. They don’t shy away from the psychological dynamics that inflected this “Apollo and Dionysius” meeting, per Midani, who observes that Elis and Tom became “a watershed between what existed before and what came after it.”

Venerated outside Brazil as the world’s greatest songwriter, described by Ron Carter in one of his two vignettes as a “casual genius,” Jobim circa 1973 was out of vogue in his homeland. Regina, nicknamed “Hurricane” and “Little Pepper,” was on the cusp of international stardom, but ambivalent, her son says, about “leaving the comfort zone of home and starting from scratch.” We view the process by which Apollonian Jobim — charismatic, minimalist, wary of ceding control — seduces, charms and bullies Dionysian, pop-oriented, intuitive Regina from tense mistrust to acceptance.

Sloane, A Jazz Singer

Where Elis and Tom portrays two transcendent artists at a mid-career crossroads, Sloane, A Jazz Singer resembles Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight — without the bathos — in its focus on the final act of a single artist nearing the end of the road. It’s a labor of love by director Michael Lippert, who shadows Carol Sloane (1937–2023) in her modest Massachusetts apartment in fall 2019 as she prepares for an engagement at the Birdland Theater.

Along the way, she talks about her formative years in Smithfield, Rhode Island, early touring with Les Elgart’s swing orchestra, frequent subbing with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and a breakthrough performance at the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival. Sloane’s nuanced phrasing, infallible time, immaculate pitch and spot-on intonation positioned her as a lineal descendent of early heroes like Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae, who both befriended and praised her. Matter-of-factly, she traces her glorious 1960s. She moves to New York, tours as an opening act for Oscar Peterson, hangs out with and photographs the Beatles and Rolling Stones in 1964 and 1965 (they shared a manager) and frequently appears on The Tonight Show.

The ensuing half-century — during which she records more than 30 albums — is shakier. Work is scant. She finds a second home in North Carolina, has an alcohol-codependent marriage with the great pianist Jimmy Rowles, survives a scotch-and-sleeping pills suicide attempt, finds true love with a Boston clubowner, enjoys 25 years of stability and musical success, adjusts to widowhood and the infirmities of old age — and transcends mother time with four beautiful sets before four packed houses. During the week of filming, Sloane was unsure that she could make it happen. For viewers observing her exemplary character and dedication to craft, her triumphant performance seems inevitable.

The Blind Boys of Alabama, This May Be the Last Time

A similarly elegiac-yet-affirmative trope of defying death via artistic practice infuses The Blind Boys of Alabama, This May Be the Last Time, a 22-minute account of the creation of the venerable gospel ensemble’s recent album Echoes Of The South. Director Daniel Fox juxtaposes in-studio footage of the recording of “Send It On Down,” “The Last Time,” “Keep On Pushing” and “Heaven Help Us All” with interviews of the protagonists. We hear from “often imitated, never duplicated” falsetto tenor Paul Beasley and the redoubtable Benjamin Moore, who each joined BBOA after losing their vision and died not long after the recording was made.

Jimmy Carter, the 91-year-old group leader, who would retire after the session, discusses the group’s history and future. Reverend Julian Love gives a post-session sermon. Guitarist Joey Williams, BBOA’s youngest member, talks about the blessing of intersecting with the elders in the group.

Ricky McKinnie, a member since 1989, sums up: “Our spirit isn’t about what you can’t do; it’s about what you can do; as long as we stay true to that, and everybody gives all that they have to give and we sing songs that touch the heart, this group will live on forever.” This promotional EPK is a resounding testament to collective imperatives and soloistic individuality coexisting in equipoise.

Introduction to Syntactical Ghost Trance Music

So is Introduction to Syntactical Ghost Trance Music, a 17-minute “educational video” by Anthony Braxton’s TriCentric Foundation about Braxton’s compositional methods as applied to the 12-singer ensemble that rendered 12 of his sui generis compositions for the 12-CD box GTM (Syntax) 2017. As in Elis and Tom, the narrative revolves around previously unreleased rehearsal and recording footage of the sessions that generated the album, and a separate interview with Braxton in avuncular professor mode.

Edited by director, co-producer and singer Kyoko Kitamura for presentation at an August 2023 Braxton festschrift in Darmstadt, Germany, it’s an invaluable resource for Braxton-philes. Particularly fascinating is an opportunity to individuate the singers, who render the score’s complex rhythms and intervals with precision and a relaxed attitude, perhaps inspired by Braxton’s amusing impromptu demonstration of how a long passage should be phrased.

Mostly freelancers from the New York area and New England, many of whom first convened at the recording of Braxton’s opera Trillium E, they embody a phenomenon articulated by bassist Mark Dresser, a Braxton alumnus: “Braxton gives an amount of freedom unlike any composer I know. It’s like he’s created this ship, and once you get in, whatever direction the people want to take, it is there. It’s almost shamanistic. That collective quality is unlike any music I’ve played. Whether the music was powerful or sensitive or textural or rhythmic, however you did it, as long as it was with total conviction, he loved it all.”

City of a Million Dreams

Braxton, an Army veteran, has explored parade music deeply over the years, and it isn’t too much of a stretch, at least for this writer, to discern affinities between the polyphonic character of GTM (Syntax) 2017 and the sound of the New Orleans parade bands featured in the brilliant, multiply-layered City of a Million Dreams.

The project is the brainchild of journalist-historian Jason Berry, who traces the 200-plus year history of musical funerary rituals in the Crescent City with well-directed recreations of the African rhythms and ring dances in Congo Square, and historical photographs and films of different parade bands that connect to the ensembles featured in Berry’s own compelling footage of jazz funerals between 1997 and 2019.

Berry contextualizes the information with erudite testimony from clarinetist-scholar Dr. Michael White, an eminent historian-practitioner of traditional New Orleans music, renowned for playing “the widow’s wail” in the dirge portion of hundreds of funeral parades, and Deborah Cotton, a columnist and blogger whose subject was these one-of-a-kind rituals. He also interviews participants like trumpeters Gregg Stafford (Young Tuxedo Brass Band) and the late Milton Batiste (Olympia Brass Band), as well as non-musician Fred Johnson, a one-time Mardi Gras Indian Spy Boy who runs the Black Men of Labor Club, one of the social aid and pleasure associations that contribute to the infrastructure that armatures the traditions across generations.

We see White, visiting his Katrina-ravaged home for the first time, sift through the ruins of his extensive archive. We’re there as he begins to heal and rebuild, embody the resurrection spirit he refers to when remarking, “The jazz funeral helps us to transition from death to a new spiritual existence.” We see Cotton — who endured 36 surgeries after being trapped in the crossfire of rival gangs at a 2013 parade, before dying of post-shooting complications in 2017 — tell an audience, “Could it be that the antidote to our struggle is to celebrate?”

Both perspectives are palpable in the footage of the funeral of Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., whose son, the alto saxophonist Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr., horn in hand, is seen participating in the raucous ceremonial. DB



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