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Monday, January 14, 2002

From the Outside Looking In: A Review of Alan Roth's documentary film, Inside Out in the Open 

By John Stevenson

LONDON - Among the many heads peeping cautiously from beneath parapets in 2002, is the head of this reviewer. After all, 2001 was quite a tempestuous year for jazz. Even the eternal optimists amongst us would admit that the storms weren't taking place in fine china teacups.

Perhaps the most dust was stirred up from the release -- on both sides of the pond -- of Ken Burns' acclaimed masterpiece, Jazz. With its slick commercial guise, glaringly obvious shortcomings, and motives of its well-known co-conspirators apart, Burns' groundbreaking production nevertheless drew millions of viewers into the enigmatic musical saga and tapestry of that quintessentially American cultural legacy (and prime aesthetic export) known as jazz music, recalling the tortured social conditions that have attended the defining decades of its life.

2001 also threw up Clevelander-turned-New Yorker Alan Roth's equally compelling jazz documentary, Inside Out in The Open, which also marked his impressive directorial debut. A project which began in 1997, the documentary attempts to address the gross error of historical judgement made in Burns' Jazz, in which scant attention was paid to the development of free jazz.

Inside Out in The Open runs for a riveting 59 minutes and is all about free improvised (or free form) music as recounted by the likes of Roswell Rudd, John Tchicai, Joseph Jarman and Marion Brown (among others) who helped to midwife the birth of the "New Thing"  in the socially turbulent 1960s. The movement's younger progeny such as pianist Matthew Shipp and drummer Susie Ibarra are thrown under the spotlight as well.

The documentary begins with an unidentified image -- blurred, dreamy, and seemingly diaphanous -- suffused by the layered voices of Rudd, et al attempting to answer the question "what is sound?"

In a series of alternating, and sometimes brisk sequences, we are carried from the pithy insights of Alan Silva, Susie Ibarra and Baikida Caroll (again, among others) describing their experiences with free jazz, to frenzied and intense performances of the New Music. Particularly spectacular is the live session featuring the William Parker-led In Order to Survive, with Cooper-Moore (like a young Cecil Taylor) percussively pummelling the piano with fisticuffs, energetically sculpting his own brand of creative dissonance into the architecture of the collective improvisation at work.

The big plus for Inside Out in the Open is that the music and musicians tell the story of improvised free jazz; there is no overbearing politically or ideologically oriented narrative voice to influence the viewer. It is the first of two documentaries; the next one will focus on the New York Art Quartet which, although it functioned for a very brief period, nonetheless impacted very significantly on the free jazz movement.

The recurrent themes of freedom, originality, breaking-free, and aesthetic convergence emerge in the rap sessions in which the flow of consciousness is abruptly stemmed by the interruption of a ringing telephone when Carroll and Jarman are in mid-sentence.

Marion Brown (of Three for Shepp fame) and Jarman share interesting contrasts between the rich artistic ferment in New York City during the 60s, and the wintry remove of Chicago where daring and considerably less competitive experimentation was going on in the context of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Muhal Richards Abrams-led Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

Because of their tremendous artistic integrity, the featured musicians calmly and articulately speak about their chosen vocations in America. For it takes integrity to cut against the grain of "accepted  and acceptable"  musical form in such an advanced capitalist society.

Indeed, the Afro-Dane, John Tchicai, with characteristic Zen-like composure says "most people cannot cope with polyrhythms, polytonality, and sounds that are different . " A point well understood by folks like Ornette Coleman whose orthodoxy-defying stylings were viewed with such apprehension in the jazz community of the 60s that he was sometimes paid not to perform.

If jazz conjured up vulgarity at the turn of the 20th century, free improvised jazz was the polite term for a thing considered even more repulsive in the musical community. In a 1988 interview with Ben Sidran (in Sidran's Talking Jazz, An Oral History) tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin said: "I was in total disagreement with the major disc-jockeys of [the 1960s], the so-called jazz critics of the day, who were proclaiming a new noise that they called music, which turned out to be avant garde and free jazz, and I thought it was all rubbish, which it has proved to have been, all rubbish, a bad joke on music, which I think really helped to destroy the jazz scene as such here in America in the early 60s and 70s, almost completely..."

It is little wonder, then, that Ken Burns' major omission should in fact be the avant garde and its development in the 1960's and 70's with such worthy exponents as Keith Jarrett whose solo improvisational concerts (Koln, Sun Bear, etc) helped to significantly reshape the contours of the genre. Indeed, the balm of free jazz was to be found in the Gilead-like jazz community of the 70s, long before the momentous return of Dexter Gordon to the Big Apple!

However, what emerges here is the notion of a consistent interrogation into what are the very properties of jazz "an interrogation which didn't begin with Kenny G versus the Young Lions.

Though the views on Roth's documentary featuring Roswell Rudd, John Tchicai and Alan Silva, for example, are valuable, the film is akin to a partially lit room in which some corners remain darkened.

The visionary locutions of a Cecil Taylor, an Ornette Coleman, an Anthony Braxton, or an Archie Shepp could have invested the documentary with even more context and perspective. Outside of Chicago and New York, California has also had its share of the New Thing with folks such as Vinny Golia. In Texas, Dennis Garcia carried the torch inspired by Ornette Coleman many years before. These could have provided interested geographical contrasts.

In the end these may all turn out to be minor quibbles. Inside Out in The Open, however, provides us with a wonderful opportunity to pursue a more revisionistic approach to jazz criticism, scholarship and historiography in 2002 and beyond -- now that the air is beginning to clear and the parapet is torn down, of course.