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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 improvised music.

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 film.

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 spheres.