Where Ken Burns may or may not be the modern definitive anthologist of jazz history in visual format, and certainly a tsunami of critical opinion differs on that point, Icons Among Us not only takes up where he left off but also acts as historiographer to the orthodoxy of Burns' and others' oft overladen bounty of reflexive re-encantations of received wisdom. More, this oral odyssey reflects jazz's more cynically wise eschewal of worship of the past as the sole or even the chiefest legitimate means of music production, conversation, and criticism. Over the run of a literal orgy of sharp-witted, knowledgeable, and even blasphemous (bless that Matthew Shipp!!) insights, opinions, and rumblings, the viewer is set right down in the middle of the debate's new era and thus awakened—enlightened, if you will.
Though I must say I'm not happy with the censorship throughout the satisfyingly long (but all too short!) four-DVD set, bleeps cutting out obscenities in an artistic oeuvre that's glaringly obvious as adult fare and thus undeserving of such emendation, I nonetheless understand why it was done, noting the accompanying CD-ROM and printable 62-page printable PDF scholastic study guide, and move on. This material is so damn valuable that such cautions in a religion-dominated world so beggarly in its tolerances, not to mention lightning swift in its ignorant rancors and retributions, is not only wise but necessary…dammit! 'Sides, no one can have any doubt what was said nor miss the impact. As noted, Matthew Shipp's a blessed relief of candor, honesty, and hard-as-nails ideations, the kind of rebellious anti-authoritarian intellect that keeps jazz the fount of daring enterprise it still manages to be despite all pressures to steamroll to the contrary. An example straight from the selfsame acerbic pianist in the film: "Jazz is just a word, it's a four-letter word. It has, actually, no meaning." Heh! That should set the old guard's teeth on edge.
Then there's the surprisingly zen-like presence of Nicholas Payton, a cat who's rock-solid spiritual but very far from the Western representation of that estate…unless one truly understands the East-West Gnostic side of the Christ mythos, as well as the enigma of Socrates, Nietzsche, and others. In fact, the prevalence of spiritual feeling as narrative and coloration develops well here, a decidedly Humanist spirituality at that, and may surprise many, as jazz has never been particularly noted for its adherence to this aspect of life. Ah, but such a notion ignores the venerable John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, and others, Trane a gent exceedingly moved by that which lie-eth outside the temporal. Regardless, though, Icons is a deep pensée on aesthetics, the travails of cutting edge artists, and the very pointed inference of what might occur were the world at large to adopt airs more in tune with the artistic ferment it claims to honor.
Alternating spoken testament with splices of club scenes and visits to New Orleans and other jazz birthplaces, Icons is linear only in that it starts with many general senses of topicality and then riffs and improvs on whatever comes up, as full of nuance and twists as the music form itself. A discussion on aesthetics may lead into a delineation of the mechanics of chops, then into a critique of the club scene alongside observations of audience attitude shifts, and, well, hardly an aspect of the present lamentably low-profile renaissance is left out in the cold. Then, of course, there are the bonuses of full live takes on songs at the terminus of each of the four episodes, close-up shots of Shipp, Bill Frisell, Charlie Hunter, Roy Hargrove, and etc. working away in their distinct languages. Thus, the titular assertion is on the mark: if you're still sitting in a Burnsian framework or thinking that the elder Blue Note, CTI, Prestige, and other landmarks remain the flesh and blood of jazz, think again. Once done with this document, you will indeed never look at the style that way any longer.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2011, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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