Appellate Judge James A. Stewart reminds us that jazz can be a noun, verb, or adjective.
"It's the only art form that creates art in the moment, in the actual moment."—Bugge Wesseltoft
What is jazz? It's a question that's discussed a lot in Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense. The usual answers about improvisation and the history of the music are there, but what Icons boils down to is a snapshot of what jazz is at the moment.
Most of the screen time is given to sampling contemporary jazz artists, including Ravi Coltrane, Bill Frisell, Medeski Martin & Wood, the Will Bernard Quartet, the Esperanza Spalding Quartet, and the Courtney Pine Sextet. You'll also hear from European jazz musicians like Bugge Wesseltoft and see daKAH, a hip-hop orchestra, in performance. Icons includes glimpses of the musicians' lives, as Will Bernard talks about how living in New York—the "jazz capital"—improves his sound or New Orleans musician Donald Harrison Jr. takes a break from rebuilding his house to play drums on a bucket. It gives Wynton Marsalis a platform to talk about the integrity of his sound. Mostly though, it gives people a chance to hear, at least briefly, all the new sounds of modern jazz. The musical performances appear to be snippets, since there's a lot of ground covered, but they're substantial snippets, and there's almost always some music going on, at least in the background.
However, five performance pieces are featured in the extras, from the Donald Harrison Quartet, Matthew Shipp, Brian Blade & the Friendship Band, The Roy Hargrove Quintet, and Bugge Wesseltoft. All of them sound great; you'll want to pay extra attention to Shipp because of his intensity at the piano, and to Wesseltoft as he goes back and forth between piano and an electronic device. As you continue through the extras, you'll find one more performance: the Living Daylights at a 2002 Mardi Gras party, in video with a lot of grain and dubious lighting. Music also manages to find its way into the three talky extras, profiles of JazzReach, Earshot Jazz, and Jazz Foundation of America, three organizations that support jazz. Rounding out the extras is a slideshow, with a lot of posed pics. It's set to music, of course.
If you like jazz, you'll find that, even with ample extras, there's just enough here to intrigue you, make you want to go to a performance or festival, or buy a CD. The filmmakers are helpful, making sure everyone on screen or speaker is identified. They're also fond of split screens so that you can see the performance as you hear someone talking about it. True, that's putting the music into boxes in a way, but the shapes are more jagged than the neat little squares Jack Bauer and company fit into on 24.
Picture quality is good. The sound is Dolby Digital 2.0, but it does the job.
If you like jazz, but don't quite know where to begin exploring the modern jazz scene, Icons makes a good primer. That'll be true even if you tune out all the comments on the meaning of jazz and think of it as a jazz sampler. Moreover, Icons is, in and of itself, an enjoyable experience.
Not guilty. You'll want more, of course, but that's the idea.
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