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On Screen: ‘Fire Music: The Story of Free Jazz’

Fire Music: The Story of Free Jazz opens with some astonishing archival footage of Sun Ra and his Arkestra on stage engaged in some atonal, poly-rhythmic space exploration. From there, director Tom Surgal ascribes the arc of the avant-garde movement in jazz from the late ’50s through the late ’70s. In under 90 minutes, Surgal makes a compelling case that free jazz, too often dismissed as noise, deserves far more attention than it receives. 

Prior to a nightmarish sequence featuring images of Louis, Duke, Diz, Krupa, Monk and Mingus, the film boldly quotes Karl Marx. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” The film tells the compelling stories of the courageous, visionary musicians who embraced the avant-garde ethos. These artists turned away from the past, put their trust in each other and exploded musical conventions.

Ornette Coleman was in the vanguard of this movement and one of the central figures of the film. Ornette provides insightful commentary via archival footage. “I don’t care about what I wrote yesterday,” he muses. And, indicating a record player, “There’s a machine right there that’s got the past.” “Presence” he says is the quality prized most in his music.

Coleman’s 1961 Atlantic release Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, featured separate quartets improvising on different stereo channels. Trumpeter Bobby Bradford, a Coleman collaborator, submits that, “The umbilical cord to bebop disappeared on that record.” Five years later, John Coltrane’s free-jazz album, Ascencion, brought respect and a wider audience to the avant-garde.

Gary Giddins, music critic and author, comments extensively throughout the film. He offers expert insight, such as his explanation that Ornette Coleman was playing “quarter tones,” notes that exist in between the keys on the piano keyboard. Giddins provides a portal into this story for those of us only vaguely aware of its many elements.

A critical element is prejudice, both racial and artistic. German musicians Ingrid Sertso and Karl Berger were shocked when they came to New York and witnessed the “respectlessness” with which these musicians were treated. Surgal examines this dark side of the story.

Free Jazz seeks to preserve the stories and art of Cecil Taylor, Prince Lasha, Sonny Simmons, Archie Shepp and John Tchicai, and of artists too-soon passed like Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy and Albert Ayler, and of the European avant-garde movements, the collectives formed in the Midwest and the loft scene in New York. Appropriately, director Surgal lets the music and the artists tell the free jazz story.

Fire Music: The Story of Free Jazz directed by Tom Surgal opens 10 September at the Film Forum in New York.

For exclusive insights from the director, read the 360°Sound interview with Tom Surgal:

Director talks new free jazz doc ‘Fire Music’


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