Once upon a time it was hard to walk into an arthouse cinema without bumping into a jazz soundtrack. Miles Davis' for Louis Malle's Ascenseur Pour L'échafaud (1958), Charles Mingus' for John Cassavetes' Shadows (1959), Krzysztof Komeda's for Roman Polanski's Knife In The Water (1962) were among a legion of similarly inclined endeavours.
But all that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In the 2020s, if you want to hear a freshly minted jazz soundtrack, you probably need to find one billed, like this one from Funkwrench Blues, as Soundtrack For A Film Without Pictures or, as others have been subtitled, Soundtrack For An Imaginary Movie.
One little known but highly recommended example is Italian baritone saxophonist and composer Alessandro Meroli's Notturni (Space Echo, 2020), a mix of jazz, psychedelia, electronica, Bollywood and classical-contemporary. It was in part inspired by Louis-Ferdinand Céline's 1932 novel "Journey To The End Of The Night." It could be dubbed a long-form acid-jazz flashback. (A review of Notturni can be read here).
California-based bassist, bass guitarist and composer Frank Swart a.k.a. Funkwrench Blues' Soundtrack For A Film Without Pictures is similarly tripped out. Swart, who has been round the block, may or may not have enjoyed his share of recreational consciousness-expansion along the waybut based on this album, five gets you ten that he has. The music is also loosely based on a book, Joseph Campbell's 1949 literary-philosophical dissertation "The Hero With A Thousand Faces." Unlike Meroli's soundtrack, however, Swart's is heavily laced with funk and blues.
The album also features cameo performances from an A-list roster of guest artists including saxophonists Gary Bartz, Dave Liebman, Bill Evans, George Garzone and Idris Ackamoor. It is probably no coincidence that three of these gents are alumni of Miles Davis' electric bands, for Soundtrack For A Film Without Pictures sounds like a modern-day recalibration of the sort of music Davis was making in the early 1970s. Check the Gary Bartz showcase, "The Call," on the YouTube below.
And Swart does it with more panache than, most of the time, did Davis. Listeners who remain unconvinced by Davis' forays into the genre are not necessarily reactionaries who think jazz has to remain stuck in the acoustic era. They can point to substantive weaknesses in Davis' electric oeuvre, not least Davis' own uneasy grip on funk aesthetics, the inadequacy of some of the musicians with which he peopled his bands, and the ugly attention-seeking chromaticism which he adopted on the trumpet for want of a better approach. A brief essay, "Miles Davis & Don Cherry: Which One Is The Grifter?," can be read here (though electric-era Davis shills are best advised to skip it).
None of these issues afflict Swart's album. The assembled company are initiates of jazz and funk, technically adept, and seekers not of ugliness but of beauty, albeit beauty in the raw.
The Life; The Call; The Refusal; The Meeting; The Crossing; The Test; The Approach; The Ordeal: The Reward; The
Road Back; The Resurrection; The Return; Credits.
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Chris May is a senior editor of All About Jazz. He was previously the editor of the pioneering magazine Black Music & Jazz Review, and more recently editor of the style / culture / history magazine Jocks & Nerds.