Rising Tones Cross : A Jazz Film By Ebba Jahn
Free Jazz has long been considered niche music with a niche audience.
Actually it's really a niche within a niche, the larger niche being
the ambiguous genre of Jazz as a whole. As such, documentation and
acceptance of its artistry and importance as a means of cultural,
political and social expression has fluctuated greatly since its beginnings,
largely dependent upon the willingness of its practitioners and admirers
to go out on a limb financially and personally to ensure its survival.
The music is currently enjoying yet another renaissance with listeners
flocking from a variety of conduits and the level of documentation
and exposure rests at an all time high, at least in the United States.
Europe, where the task of attaining recognition and resources has
historically been less consistently arduous, is another matter. Dozens
of independent labels are surfacing all over the place and musicians
themselves are routinely recording their work, and better still releasing
it to the public. Audio documents abound. But film is a medium which
has been and continues to be sorely underutilized in the preservation
and promotion efforts both in terms of Free Jazz and Jazz in general.
The number of performance films documenting the music is lamentably
few and the footage that does exist commonly takes the form of fragmentary
snippets culled from old television and radio broadcasts. Complete
jazz concerts on film are an extreme rarity and only a small handful
come to mind particularly in the case of the freer strains of creative
The reasons behind the reluctance to employ film and video as a viable
and widespread means of archival preservation are difficult to nail
down. I've seen people with video cameras regularly at free jazz performances
from the Vision Festival to the Velvet Lounge, taping the proceedings
presumably for their own personal collections. But the number of filmmakers
on the scene documenting the music specifically for larger audiences
is a paltry few. This is part of what makes Rising Tones Cross
such a revelation. Back in 1984 when German filmmaker Ebba Jahn shot
the film, the New York Free Jazz community was at a crossroads. The
Loft Movement, which fueled their creative endeavors during the 1970s,
had largely subsided due to rising rents and gentrification. Performance
spaces were at a premium and many musicians were once again struggling
to eke out an existence or being forced to completely give up their
craft. Add to this the burgeoning Downtown scene pioneered by folks
like John Zorn and Wayne Horvitz and the growing ties between European
and American improvisers and the climate in New York was ripe for
a reempowerment. One of the calls to arms for artist self-determination
came in the form of the Sound Unity Festival organized by William
and Patricia Parker and a cadre of their peers that included German
bassist Peter Kowald, in residence in the city for the summer. The
Festival is an obvious precursor to the couple's current annual Vision
Festival, an event that continues to grow in size and scope with each
passing year. But Jahn's film turns back the clock to when these seeds
were being planted.
The Festival forms the crux of the film, but there is far more going
on in Jahn's uniquely crafted, and at times improvisatory, narrative.
Opening with several shots of the city, the camera finally centers
on Charles Gayle playing tenor street-side, his saxophone case open
on the sidewalk awaiting the spare change of passersby. The sounds
emanating from his horn are unexpectedly melodic, but a switch to
a trio gig with Peter Kowald and John Betsch at the Tin Pan Alley
Club and his blowing takes on a decidedly more ecstatic edge. This
performance and the others that intersperse the remainder of the film
are intensely intriguing but ultimately disappointing. Given the single
camera nature of much of the filming there is a myopic nature, resulting
in too much of the footage and the sound (taped in noisy clubs or
large recital halls) being frequently washed out and muddy. This is
perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the entire film. The roster
of players on the tape sleeve may make the ears of free jazz fans
ring in anticipation, but the payoff on film is often less than the
musical combinations might intimate. Still it is thrilling to have
access to many of the ensembles even if it is through a limited porthole
of sound and vision, particularly the grand finale of the Peter Brötzmann
Ensemble which includes a front-line of the leader, Charles Gayle,
David S. Ware, Frank Wright, Jemeel Moondoc, Roy Campbell and Masahiko
Kono within its ranks.
Where Jahn's film really succeeds is in the interview segments. Peter
Kowald and Charles Gayle are the primary subjects, but others such
as the Parkers, also lend their observations and opinions. Gayle speaks
at length of his personal history and his dedication to his craft.
He and Kowald engage in a discussion about the prevalence of false
admiration among players. Later Kowald provides illuminating perspectives
on the dynamics of race and marginalization and their effect on New
York's improvisatory community. So much of what he says is imminently
quotable, but an important revelation exists at the center of his
experience—the Black and White scenes are very different and
distinct and the audiences for each are totally different. By his
own admission the white scene is not even Jazz at all. Jahn illustrates
the contention with a quick switch to Zorn and Horvitz performing
on duck calls and electronics in front of a somewhat flummoxed audience.
Also effective are the slices of New York City life that Jahn weaves
into the narrative. In one segment the acrobatic movements of a roller-skating
street performer are intermingled with a performance by the Charles
Tyler Quintet, which includes Roy Campbell, Curtis Clark, Wilber Morris
and John Betsch. In another the vocalized hip-hop rhythms of a human
beat box accompany Peter Kowald wheeling his bass to a rehearsal.
Other segments include a time-lapse sequence of a copse of office
buildings changing from day to night and footage of Gayle buying an
ice cream cone. All of these interludes have an intriguing air of
improvisation about them that further compliments the thrust of the
Perhaps the most surprising (and distressing) thing about Rising
Tones Cross is that it in the fifteen years since its first screening
it doesn't seem to have galvanized other filmmakers to follow suit
and pick up where it left off. While the aural facet is obviously
at the center of music-making, so much more sensory input goes into
improvisatory expression. As anyone who has attended a free jazz concert
will attest it is a music best witnessed and heard in a live setting.
All of the visual elements, nuances and interplay of a performance
are lost on the audio forms of vinyl or compact disc. Video and film
offer a medium by which these components can be captured and retained.
Fortunately Ebba Jahn was on hand to capture a host of images and
sounds from an earlier (but still recent) chapter in the music's history.
Hopefully now that her groundbreaking is film widely available to
willing audiences, other talented filmmakers will follow her lead
and continue to document the art form in more publicly accessible