The history and mythology of American jazz is as intoxicating as the music itself. Many of the form’s legends knew one another and worked together, and these relationships yielded revolutionary music and stories of intimate collaboration, damnation, and unlikely transcendence. Jazz is the soul of modern America, telling the country’s story in intricate, beautiful, simultaneously tight and open and planned and improvisational music. And one of the souls of jazz is Blue Note Records, founded by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, Jews who fled Nazi persecution in Germany and arrived in America to pursue their obsession with the music that was banned by their home government. Which is to say that modern jazz is a reaction to, and transcendence of, multiple forms of oppression.
Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is an agreeably loose and conversational documentary that’s more ambitious than it initially appears to be. Director Sophie Huber interviews the usual suspects of the modern jazz documentary—most notably Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter—and recounts the formation of Blue Note Records. As such, the film’s structure will seem familiar, especially to jazz aficionados, but Huber uncovers strikingly intimate material that elucidates difficult jazz concepts. Footage of Thelonious Monk playing the piano, his fingers hypnotically bending the keys to his will, is utilized by Huber to embody the emergence of “hard bop”—a reaction to cool standards that would define the modern concept of jazz.
Huber’s interviewees boil their experiences down into tactile and visceral descriptions; their inflections and word choices are themselves innately evocative and musical. Alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, one of the most commanding presences in Beyond the Notes, memorably says at one point that all the other record companies were “white. Cheap, cheap white, too. I should name them but I won’t.” In 12 syllables, Donaldson poetically outlines an entire history of exploitation, and the refuge that Blues Note offered. Complementing such stories are Wolff’s iconic photographs, which poignantly illustrate the unexpected union forged by two middle-aged white men and undiscovered black musical geniuses.
The film doesn’t over-emphasize this cross-racial bonhomie for the sake of sentimental uplift; instead, Huber explores the exhilaration and arduousness of the work of making these records. In many photos, we see Lion hovering at the shoulders of legends, seemingly serving and commanding them at once, which Huber complements with audio recordings that capture the toil of playing, playing, and playing again, until Lion’s painstaking vision is realized, allowing these performers to reach the apex of their talent. (It says something about Lion and Wolff that they could command the love and respect of even the ferocious Miles Davis.)
Beyond the Notes also features interviews with modern jazz musicians, whom we see playing with Hancock and Shorter, most notably covering the latter’s majestic “Masqualero.” (Huber is the rare modern filmmaker to accord Shorter the respect he deserves, as he’s often recruited by filmmakers to attest to the brilliance of other men.) Pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Kendrick Scott, among others, talk of the importance of carrying jazz into the present day, a project that’s been taken up by artists such as Kendrick Lamar, with whom Glasper has collaborated, as well as the producer Don Was, the current president of Blue Note. These sentiments lead Huber to a too-brief visual essay on the link between jazz, R&B, and hip-hop.
If Blue Note: Beyond the Notes lacks the intensity and personality of recent jazz docs such as I Called Him Morgan and It Must Schwing—The Blue Note Story, it’s because Huber hasn’t chosen one story, favoring a “sampler” structure that would’ve been better served by a running time that’s much longer than the film’s 90 minutes. Huber ably accomplishes her stated goal, opening up jazz for new audiences, rendering it palpable without flattening it out with pat explanations. But cinephiles and jazz fans will be left wanting more of everything, especially the jam session between Glasper, Scott, Hancock, Shorter, and others. Such a session inspires Scott to make an unforgettable observation. Playing with some of his heroes, Scott expected Hancock and Shorter to “take the lead.” But these men wanted to see what the young bucks got, giving them the gift that is the ultimate promise of jazz: freedom.
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