2021, NR, 71 min. Directed by Tom Surgal.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 24, 2021
British comedian Les Dawson was famous for playing the piano badly. Hilariously badly. Just wrecking the song. But he would often receive praise from other pianists for his skill. Anyone could play the piano badly, they would say, but to play the perfect wrong note – one that leaves the tune recognizable but incorrect – is a unique skill. So it was with the innovators of free jazz: Critics, peers, and the general public heard cacophony, but the reality was that it attracted the most skilled, the most innovative, the most collaborative performers, the ones that could tiptoe to the edge of chaos but only because they understood order.
The evolution of jazz has been so accelerated that the term is borderline meaningless. As jazz historian Gary Giddins notes in free jazz history lesson Fire Music, a musician who grew up listening to Duke Ellington was working the club circuit while Charlie Parker was on the bill. So it was with the transformation of bebop into free jazz, the often obtuse form championed from the late 1950s by pioneers like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, and given respectability by John Coltrane (no one could claim that Trane couldn’t play). With interviews with many of the survivors of a scene that had tragic attrition rates, and a deep archive dig of astounding performance footage, Tom Surgal creates what he calls a “corrective” to Ken Burns’ often laborious 2001 PBS series, Jazz, which dismissively treated the movement as an afterthought.
Surgal’s theorem is clear: that free jazz is not removed from the informal structures of bebop, but just further down the stream, much as bebop wasn’t really that far removed from the big band era. Yes, take that stepping stone away and it looks like an impossible leap, but they are all part of jazz. Yet that’s also the limitation of Surgal’s thesis. Free jazz is a subset of jazz, yes, but it’s also part of the broader movements of postwar America. So to not mention Modernism, or the philosophical reevaluations that would crystalize as Deconstructionism, or (bar an incidental mention of Miró and Mapplethorpe) the wild adventures of midcentury visual art, diminishes and ring-fences free jazz: frustrating, considering Surgal launched this project because he felt Burns' version of jazz was too limited. More astoundingly, he makes it seem like free jazz introduced avant garde music into Europe (a jaw-dropping act of Americentrism that collapses just by saying “Stockhausen”). Fire Music also implies the scene simply ended, which seems antithetical to his whole idea that jazz evolves. That’s why the story Surgal tells is ultimately fascinating but dry, deep but limited, and a lesson more than an experience.