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DVD/Video/Film Reviews

Play Your Own Thing: A Story of Jazz in Europe

By Published: June 11, 2008
Play Your Own Thing: A Story of Jazz in Europe

"Nobody can play like Charlie Parker ever, you know, and there are so many hundreds of thousands of people who tried to live the life like him and to try to play his phrases and do it as freely and quickly and impressively as he does, but there's no chance, you can just give up right away, and think of something else, you know. Every day you hear people who are intimidating you [laughs], certainly. And there are players you look up to and you know you'll never have the facility that they have. But still, you know you have something else. I think, in some ways, our limitations is [sic] what identifies us more than anything, so when I think of some of the big, the great jazz musicians, you know, that really stand out, it was very often their lack of technique and how to deal with that, and that defined their work."

It's fitting that director Julian Benedikt uses the words of Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, not just to open his film Play Your Own Thing: A Story of Jazz in Europe, but to close it as well. While so many debate the divide between "American" and "European" jazz, what Benedikt does, in a brief ninety minutes, is demonstrate what so many musicians have been trying to say all along: jazz is not divisive; it's inclusive, and evolves because of its very willingness to accept the cultural diversity that informs its artists from around the world.

Play Your Own Thing

Dexter Gordon in Denmark

Even the city where jazz began, New Orleans of the early 1900s, was a cultural melting pot with American marching bands in the streets and French pianists in the parlors. Jazz undeniably grew out of an American tradition and, in its early days, more specifically an African-American tradition. But if blues was the folk music of African Americans when jazz emerged as a distinct art form, why should the idea of incorporating folk music from countries as diverse as France, Norway, Poland and England be any less valid?

Benedikt makes his case through a seemingly endless yet carefully sequenced series of stills, interviews and performance clips, some dating as far back as New Orleans in 1918 and others as recent as 2005, where the film ends with Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and his quartet in a French studio with ECM label head/producer Manfred Eicher, recording the remarkable (and, some might say, undeniably European) Lontano (ECM, 2006).

In between, what becomes clear is that while it wasn't until after the Second World War that jazz began to grab a major foothold in Europe, the cross-pollination that has defined the genre from inception was immediately a part of its emergence on the other side of the Atlantic. American musicians like Dexter Gordon and Bud Powell left the United States for Europe, for the simple reason that, as has been recounted by more than one African-American musician, "In America we were black musicians; in Europe we were artists." But when they arrived at destinations across Europe, they discovered young musicians eager to play with their heroes, musicians already conversant in the language of jazz but whose ability to play it with complete credibility was changed forever by the opportunity to play on the same stage with those who were amongst its greatest innovators.

Play Your Own Thing

Arve Henriksen Group

Europeans, including Garbarek, Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen, German pianist Joachim Kuhn, Danish bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, would gain experience playing with American artists either relocating to Europe as Gordon and Powell did, or coming to Europe to tour because the cultural climate was simply that much more conducive. Still, as their own careers progressed, their own cultural roots began to seep into the fabric of the music. Garbarek's first few records for ECM, such as Afric Pepperbird (1970), demonstrated clear roots in the music of Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, but it wasn't long—as early as 1974—before Scandinavian folk music began to find its way into the mix, in the saxophonist's quartet with Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson. And as Garbarek (and those around him) effected a not inconsiderable paradigm shift in the way jazz was defined, so too did his tone begin to change, gradually evolving into what would be called "Nordic Cool," a term often used (and sometimes abused) to describe his music and that of his country mates.

It's the beauty of Benedikt's direction and Andrew Hulme's astute editing, which doesn't just draw a line between the nearly sixty Americans and Europeans who participate in the documentary but instead collects them together under the same voluminous umbrella, that may well change the mindsets of at least some of those jazz fans who believe there's a clear demarcation between the American tradition and what Europeans call jazz. What's perhaps the strongest message is that many of the European artists who play music that appears to be so distanced from roots of traditional jazz as to be unrecognizable are absolutely conversant in the language, and that said language remains an unalterable part of who they are. Trumpeter Arve Henriksen, pianist Christian Wallumrod and clarinetist Louis Sclavis may play music that bears little direct reference to the music that emerged in New Orleans in the early part of the 20th century, but that doesn't mean they haven't studied it, or that it's not one ingredient in the rich stew that now incorporates, in addition to cultural folk music from countries around the globe, the influence of contemporary classical music, electronic music and much, much more.

Play Your Own Thing

Tomasz Stanko Quartet Recording Lontano

Watching clips of contemporary artists whose music seems far removed from the tradition, juxtaposed with archival clips of American artists working with others in a more traditional context, simply brings focus to a clear and unmistakable fact: it's not that these artists can't work in the tradition; it's that they choose not to. Instead, finding their own voice, or way to contribute to a music that is unmistakable in its American origins but is now truly a music of the world, is essential to keeping it alive and well: if jazz is to survive, it has to be allowed to adapt and incorporate. Jazz has been a form of fusion from the very beginning, and if there's a single premise in Play Your Own Thing, it's that jazz's position as a uniquely inclusive rather than exclusive form is what has made it such a consistently fascinating art for nearly a century.

In a time when political divisiveness is creating so much trouble and strife, the message of freedom that underscores Play Your Own Thing, one that has been at the heart of the music from its earliest days, could well be applied to disciplines extending beyond the arts. From a strictly musical perspective, the documentary is exciting if only for its wealth of interview and performance footage. But if its main premise causes even a small percentage of those fans possessing a proprietary view of jazz as an American-owned art form to rethink that position, then it would no doubt be considered a resounding success by the artists who participated in its making.

Play Your Own Thing is distributed in North America by Naxos of America.

Photo Credit
Captured from Play Your Own Thing: A Story of Jazz in Europe, courtesy of EuroArts.

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