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Essential Jazz DVDs

Highlights from Issue 34: Jazz

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Monday, February 25, 2008

By James Hughes

THELONIOUS MONK: STRAIGHT, NO CHASER
Directed by Charlotte Zwerin

Constructed primarily around Michael and Christian Blackwood’s stunning black-and-white verité footage from 1968, Straight, No Chaser captures the enigmatic Thelonious Monk as he paces and sidesteps through life, whether in claustrophobic club kitchens or the finest stages of Europe. Looking impossibly sharp in every frame — Monk sports one of his rotating hats even when nose-deep in a hotel bed, where he attempts to order chicken livers and rice from a perplexed room service valet — it’s no wonder Dolphy immortalized Monk’s style in the classic track “Hat and Beard.”

In the live footage, Monk hammers each note, despite gripping a handkerchief in one hand and wearing an oyster-sized pinky ring on the other. And his dancing — part whirling dervish, part underwater touchdown celebration — always lands him back on the piano bench just in time to polish off another time signature only he could create. “Time flies,” Monk says at one point. And Monk flies far off course after his Time magazine cover. For a man who internalized his fears, that level of attention was something he couldn’t cope with, as poignantly explained by his son, Thelonious Monk Jr., and manager, Harry Colomby.

Defining Moment: Over the strains of “Epistrophy,” Monk slowly dissolves into the crowd at a French airport and spins in circles, whirling himself — and baffled onlookers — into a lather. Later, while dragging luggage stuffed with empty Coke bottles, a German reporter attempts an interview. “Do you think the piano has enough keys?” Monk shrugs. “It’s hard work playing those 88.”


JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY

Directed by Bert Stern

Celebrated for his fashion photography — including the last sitting with Marilyn Monroe — the jazz world was a foreign landscape for Bert Stern when he stepped onto the immaculate grounds of the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. “This brought jazz out into the sun and it was different,” Stern said in a 1999 interview. As a result, Stern produced some of the most iconic slices of life in jazz cinema, as well as some of the most jarring juxtapositions, whether it’s musicians pouring sweat for the occasionally cool receptions of the sunbathing crowds, or seagulls swirling over Satchmo.

Defining Moment: A hush falls over the crowd as Chico Hamilton’s quintet takes the stage. The sky is dark and the floodlights illuminate every square inch of the bandshell, creating an environment that evokes Dr. Poole shadowboxing in the Centrifuge of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Fittingly, Chico goes for the mallets.


ALL THE NOTES
Directed by Christopher Felver

“Every culture produces its own magic,” says New York’s resident alchemist, Cecil Taylor. Focusing on his daily life rather than rehashing archival footage, filmmaker Christopher Felver somehow manages to bottle Taylor’s boundless energy in this 2004 film. At times, the screen must split into quarters in order to contain Taylor’s polymath pursuits (and, as always, the thumb-worn keys of his piano receive the most attention). When Taylor’s musings don’t tell the full story, poets Nathaniel Mackey and Amiri Baraka, as well as the late, angelic jazz stalwarts Mal Waldron and Elvin Jones, are there to fill in the slivers of silence with on-camera interviews.

Defining Moment: Midway through the film, Taylor deciphers the jottings on all the looseleaf papers that sprout up from every corner of his apartment. “I don’t use notes,” he says. “I use the alphabet.”

 

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