'Fire Music': Film Review | NYFF 2018

Baron Wolman
Necessary viewing for jazz buffs.

Tom Surgal's documentary chronicles the history and influence of free jazz.

Free jazz has long been neglected when it comes to histories of the seminal American musical form. As the press notes for Tom Surgal's documentary Fire Music point out, it was virtually left out of Ken Burns' otherwise exhaustive PBS doc about the subject.  The film, which recently received its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, aims to rectify that oversight. Featuring past and recent interviews with many of the key figures and generous doses of archival photographs and vintage performance footage, Fire Music should be on any serious music lover's must-see list.

"I was instantly converted, it was like a religion," pianist Carla Bley comments about first hearing Ornette Coleman, one of the pioneers of the genre. The saxophonist's 1961 album Free Jazz: A Collective Inspiration, is considered a landmark, being the first album-length improvisation ever recorded. Among the other musicians advancing the form were Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and, of course, John Coltrane.

Neither the jazz community nor audiences were quick to embrace the distinctly challenging music. Many considered those who performed in the avant-garde style as frauds who couldn't play their instruments. In an interview for Downbeat magazine, Miles Davis infamously dismissed saxophonist Eric Dolphy (among several other musicians), calling him "ridiculous," "a sad motherfucker" and added that "nobody else could sound that bad!" The harsh assessment devasted Dolphy, who never lived to see his or the form's reputation vindicated. He died later that year at age 36 from undiagnosed diabetes.

Several other important free jazz musicians also tragically died young, including Coltrane, at age 40 from liver cancer, and Albert Ayler at age 34, a presumed suicide, whose body was found in the East River.

Fire Music (the title refers to Archie Shepp's influential 1965 album) provides a concise, thoughtful account of the musical form which first blossomed in the late 1950s, likening it in historical terms to such similar artistic movements as the Abstract Expressionists in painting and the Beats in literature. The documentary does an excellent job of making the music come alive with its gripping performance footage and incisive interviews with many key players including Taylor, Sonny Simmons, Bobby Bradford, Prince Lasha, Roswell Rudd and others. Veteran jazz journalist Gary Giddins delivers much insightful historical and analytical commentary, but, being practically the only writer heard from in the film, seems overused. Surely there are other music journalists who could have provided additional perspectives?

The filmmaker applies some enjoyable visual touches to offset the monotony of a procession of talking heads. During one segment featuring separate interviews with various musicians, he superimposes their now aged faces over their more youthful selves in a group portrait. Another segment, concerning a particular block in New York City's East Village where a large number of jazz musicians congregated, cleverly positions their photographs on a map illustrating their homes.

Surgal, who has directed music videos for such bands as Sonic Youth and Pavement and is also a musician himself, demonstrates a clear affinity and love for his subject matter. That the documentary's producers include such well-known musicians as Jeff Tweedy, Thurston Moore and Nels Cline only adds to its air of authoritativeness.

Production companies: Submarine Entertainment, Nothing is…, Films We Like
Director-screenwriter: Tom Surgal
Producers: Tom Surgal, Dan Braun
Executive producers: Ron Mann, Peter Afterman, John Loggia, Thurston Moore, Nels Cline, Josh Braun, David Koh, Keith Abrahamsson, Andres Santo Domingo
Directors of photography: Jim Spring, Jens Jurgensen, Dan Ehrenbard, John Northrup
Editor: John Northrup
Composer: Lin Culbertson
Venue: New York Film Festival

71 minutes