Wednesday, 6 May 2009
The Universal Mind of Bill Evans (documentary)
Just stumbled across said programme on youtube; looks to be an unusually thoughful jazz documentary. Too often even quite promising modern jazz docs are overly scattershot in their approach: for example, you arguably learn more about Sun Ra from the fiction film 'Space is the Place' than the more recent 'Brother from Another Planet' (which draws on 'SITP' as well as the 1980s documentary 'A Joyful Noise' - 'AJN' does the right thing in letting Ra and members of the Arkestra speak their mind without 'amplification' or 'enhancement' from obtrusive journos or critics). 'Talking heads' (whether these be critics or musicians) tend to be used merely to deliver fairly obvious factual snippets or unsubstantiated opinions, with short bits of music that aren't given time to breathe amongst the commentary. A good example might be the film about 'New Thing' jazz released on DVD by ESP Disk, 'Inside Out in the Open', which is admittedly hampered by its length - it feels like it's trying to cram a whole TV series' worth into a mere hour. But even those programmes which have the luxury of giving more time to their subjects, such as Ken Burns' 'Jazz', fall into the same trip - most infamously when Cecil Taylor could be dismissed by a wilfully ignorant Marsalis comment and an extremely brief snippet of a piano solo whose overall feel is actually very different to the chosen excerpt. (Full video here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=cP5L8tjnB6w) Some might argue that, as with television news, an agenda is being pushed - the impression of 'neutrality', of hearing several sides of the issue, is foisted upon us by the wide variety of talking heads, even as they merge into one voice, crowing the party line. This might not even be their fault - but selective editing can make it so. And, importantly, it might not even be the fault of the film-makers (debate Mr Burns' motivation in the aforementioned Cecil Taylor example as you will), as much as a result of the constraints they have to work under - most obviously, with regards to length, and to the sheer scope of material they have to address within such limiting confines.
Which is why I think the 'small is beautiful' approach is probably where the best jazz docs come from. There are no such compromises, no glaring omissions and skewed/chopped viewpoints in the Bill Evans documentary. By limiting things down to three people - Steve Allen, for the introduction; Bill Evans, as the documentary subject; and his brother Harry, as interviewer - it allows their thoughts to emerge at greater length, and with greater clarity; allows us access to the creative process of an artist without the talking-heads' schizophrenic data-barrage of dates, annecdotes, narratives. It's willing to be slow and to give time for actual thought about jazz as a serious artform.
As for the actual content of the prog, there are some interesting ideas, though I'm not sure I agree with all of them. The intro from Steve Allen is surprisingly shtick-free (apart from the rather forced gag where he pretends to forget his name), and his point about technique becoming so ingrained that the spontaneous aspects of improvisation can flow naturally, without forced or pre-planned conscious thought - that the artist can think with/through technique - actually parallel some of the comments Evan Parker makes in David Borgo's book on improvisation 'Sync or Swarm': Parker backing up his ideas with scientific reference to the left and right hemispheres of the brain, or to psi phenomena.
The statement by Evans which opens the doc is particularly controversial: the notion of a "universal musical mind" somewhat similar to Chomsky's 'universal grammar', or even to Hegel's 'Absolute Spirit', relies on non-interrogated notions of the 'real', the 'true', the 'good'. (Though admittedly, later on, Evans demonstrates (by some variations on the tune 'How About You'), how playing 'simply' can be more 'real' than approximating a more complex approach for which you do not have the technical skill). I'm also intrigued by the way in which he thinks a 'sensitive layman' may have more insight than a hardened professional, unconcerned as they are with the technical niceties of performance, more able to appreciate the spontaneous joys of creation. I'd only go along with that so far, though I think it's a valuable corrective to the 'high priesthood' of critics telling us what to think, whose opinions may be no more valuable than those they 'teach'.
But let's not get into that whole 'role of the critic' debate. There's much to digest on this documentary, so click the play button and enjoy. I'd be quite interested to generate some discussion about this, so, once you've seen the thing, do leave a comment below if you have any thoughts.