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Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense - World Premiere

Eric Benson By

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After De Barros' remark, the filmmakers cut to footage of Frisell playing Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" with his trio. Is this supposed to illustrate the connection between "the society" and Bill Frisell that De Barros missed? Frisell appears frequently throughout the first episode, telling us that "jazz is infinite" and that jazz represents a kind of better, safer world. Are we being asked to interpret Frisell's jazz as an anti-war statement of love and peace? And if this represents Bill Frisell's connection to the society, what does it mean that he's playing a song that was written 46 years ago?

At least in its first episode, Icons Among Us steers clear of answering such questions. On the one hand, raising questions without answering them is a wise move where jazz is concerned: drawing a direct link between music and society is bound to result in oversimplification and forced connections. (De Barros gives a great example of this when he says that jazz in the era of Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus was "about black liberation." If that's what jazz was about, were Bill Evans, Lee Konitz, and the very popular Stan Getz just as disconnected from the zeitgeist as Bill Frisell? And how does "black liberation" account for the differences between John Coltrane, Herbie Nichols, Sarah Vaughan, and Sun Ra?)

On the other hand, by avoiding answers, the first episode of Icons Among Us isn't left with all that much to say. Ken Burns' Jazz created a history of the music that may have been flawed, but had the courage to assert a narrative. Icons Among Us is a historiography of the J-word debate the shies away from taking a well-defined position on jazz present and future. The documentary's contribution is as a corrective to Burns' one-sided history, but doesn't go much beyond that. At the end of the first episode, our picture of "jazz in the present tense" is of a music that wants to be current, isn't quite sure how to get there, doesn't quite know what to do with its history, and is beginning to look for something to do beside infighting. That's not much of a rallying cry for a revolution, quiet or otherwise.

Photo Credit
Stills taken from Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense - Episode One: The Quiet Revolution, courtesy of Paradigm Studio and The Documentary Channel.

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