By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 9/8/21 – Opening at Film Forum in New York City on Friday, September 10, and at the Laemelle Theatres and the Landmark Nuart in Los Angeles on September 17 is Tom Surgal’s new documentary Fire Music (2021), a feature-length investigation of the “avant-garde” jazz musicians of 20th-century jazz. Although the free jazz movement of the 1960s and ‘70s was much maligned in some jazz circles, its pioneers – brilliant talents like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, and John Coltrane – are today acknowledged as central to the evolution of jazz as America’s most innovative art form. Fire Music showcases the architects of a movement whose radical brand of improvisation pushed harmonic and rhythmic boundaries and produced landmark albums like Coleman’s Free Jazz: A Collective Inspiration and Coltrane’s Ascension. A rich trove of archival footage conjures the 1960s jazz scene along with incisive reflections by critic Gary Giddins and a number of the movement’s key players. In 2019, Surgal had a 55-minute pared-down version of the film at the New York Film Festival, but since that time, he has refined the film and added footage to this current 105-minute fine recounting of the free jazz movement.
Surgal seems to have embarked on his project just in time. “Six of my interview subjects have died since I started the project,” he said in 2015. Since that time, another one, the trombonist Roswell Rudd, who appears briefly in Fire Music, has passed away. One of the film’s most memorable segments features the late reed player and flutist Prince Lasha and his frequent collaborator, the brilliant and underrated altoist Sonny Simmons, recounting what brought them to New York. Fire Music has been an enormous labor of love on the part of Tom Surgal, who began his work on the film almost 10 years ago. Whether you’re a free jazz partisan or not, the film, whose producers include Nels Cline, Thurston Moore and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, is a valuable addition to what we know about the free jazz movement. For some, Ken Burns’ 2001 PBS series Jazz was a definitive, open-and-shut take on its subject, as comprehensive a portrait of the genre as one could hope for. For others, the series was a major slight. As Tom Surgal, director of the new doc Fire Music put it, Burns’ 10-part program “really got into pretty thoroughly depicting the entire history of the jazz continuum and virtually ignored free jazz altogether.”
The film’s strongest selling point is a generous range of original interviews with key participants in and observers of the movement, as well as plenty of context to help situate “the avant-garde,” as it was sometimes called – and the contributions of pivotal figures such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane and Sun Ra – within the larger story of 20-century jazz. Trumpeter Bobby Bradford credits Ornette Coleman with cracking the code that made free jazz possible, by devising a system of improvisation that wasn’t dependent on pre-set chord changes. And both he and Simmons cite bebop legend Charlie Parker as a vital early influence. “I was amazed at how this human being, one man, can stand up there looking like a saint and an angel in a white suit, all this beautiful music,” Simmons says of seeing Parker live in 1949. “It changed my whole life.”
The late 1950s and early 1960s was the most dazzling period of free jazz and largely centered in New York City, where every week somebody new was in town on the jazz scene. Norris “Sirone” Jones, bassist for the Cecil Taylor Revolutionary Ensemble and Prince Lasha drove from Los Angeles to New York and there they released The Cry album with Sonny Simmons. John Coltrane collaborated with Miles Davis for the now-famous interpretation of “My Favorite Things.” The epic event was Ornette Coleman’s 1960 recording “Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation” in separate stereo channels with a double quartet of Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Scott LaFaro, Bill Higgins, with the second group of Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Haden, Ed Blackwell. The film Fire Music takes us out of bebop and into the real fire of improvisational jazz with its polyphonic rhythms and poly-tonality, breaking boundaries to create something new. The film weaves in the graphic arts, experimental photography and contemporary painting of the late 1950s and early 1960s, so the visual aspect is more than talking heads and musical performance.
The way the film meticulously connects the dots between bebop and free jazz is exemplary, especially in light of how some talking heads in Burns’ film seemed to dismiss the later movement as some sort of aberration. “They’re not saying that ‘we don’t like the past’; they’re not saying that ‘we’re better than the past,’” the ever-lucid critic Gary Giddins explains early in the film of the so-called avant-gardists’ perspective. “They’re saying that this is another way to hear music.” Often, we tend to group jazz styles chronically, but that is an over-simplification: Swing, from the 1920s and 1930s into the 1940s: Benny Goldman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lester Young; Bebop, from the late 1940s through the 1950s and into the 1960s: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillepsie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus; Avant-Garde, in the 1960s and 1970s: Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler. But Charles Mingus had aspects of bebop in his style, as did John Coltrane.
Of course, Coltrane never stayed static. Each of his records moved into completely new territory. Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (1965) was very popular with jazz fans, but his next record Ascension (1966) was so improvisational that it scared off his entire audience. Unlike many of his fellow musicians in free jazz, Coltrane was a super-star and made money – enough money that he generously helped out struggling musicians pay their rent and promoted younger jazz artists who he pulled into his orbit. Coltrane believed in helping everyone, but he had a history of liver cancer and died in July 1967 – the date that began the slow death of avant-garde jazz. Albert Ayler, so daring and convinced about his mission in music, died penniless from an apparent suicide in 1970.
Trumpeter Bobby Bradford credits Ornette Coleman with cracking the code that made free jazz possible, by devising a system of improvisation that wasn’t dependent on pre-set chord changes. Coleman was playing with pitch – he was not out of tune, but playing quarter-tone pitches: By which he meant he was playing the notes between the two adjacent keys on the piano. “If you play the exact ratio of quarter notes, then you are in tune.” And both he and Simmons cite bebop legend Charlie Parker as a vital early influence. “I was amazed at how this human being, one man, can stand up there looking like a saint and an angel in a white suit, all this beautiful music,” Simmons says of seeing Parker live in 1949. “It changed my whole life.”
The way the film meticulously connects the dots between bebop and free jazz is exemplary, especially in light of how some talking heads in Burns’ film seemed to dismiss the later movement as some sort of aberration. “They’re not saying that ‘we don’t like the past’; they’re not saying that ‘we’re better than the past,’” the ever-lucid critic Gary Giddins explains early in the film of the so-called avant-gardists’ perspective. “They’re saying that this is another way to hear music.”
With its tight focus on mostly New York–based musicians of the Sixties – one sequence delves into famed 1964 New York City concert series the October Revolution and the short-lived musicians’ guild it helped to spawn – Surgal’s film leaves unexplored just how deeply free jazz and related aesthetics took root everywhere from Chicago to Germany and Japan, and how vital the worldwide scene surrounding this music remains today. It’s worth noting that Surgal, an accomplished drummer known mainly for his work with the duo White Out, has been an active participant in this community for decades. It also bears mentioning that the film’s original teaser trailer featured key European musicians such as Brötzmann and Han Bennink, but the final cut of Fire Music is much more focused on a very specific time and place when avant-garde free jazz flourished in the United States and especially in New York City. In the finished version of the film, there is a kind of coda to the legacy of free jazz in Germany, Holland, and England, but the last word is given to the promise of jazz innovators who will come along some day in the not-too-distant future.
Fire Music is light on extended performance footage and there are plenty of other documentaries out there that feature the work of Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp, as well as The World According to John Coltrane, All the Notes (featuring Cecil Taylor), Made in America (Ornette Coleman), My Name is Albert Ayler (drummer Denis Charles), and the recent, profoundly philosophical and radically impressionistic Full Mantis (drummer Milford Graves). What I liked especially about Tom Surgal’s documentary Fire Music was the way he captures the very humanity, intelligence, and spiritual reflectiveness of these amazing avant-garde jazz musicians.