Tag Archives: jazz

Remembering Les Blank

12 Apr

American filmmaker and documentarian Les Blank died last week at the age of 77. Blank began making experimental short films in the 1960s and then moved onto documentaries. Never a conventional filmmaker, either in execution or subject matter, he brought his unique sensibility to his work. He made many films about artists and musicians, including Lighnin’ Hopkins, Dizzy Gillespie. He also documented jazz music and the culture in New Orleans, as seen in the clip above.

He was friends with the German filmmaker Werner Herzog and eventually made films about him including Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, a film about a bet between Blank and Herzog that if their friend Errol Morris made a film, Herzog would eat his own shoe. It’s not a spoiler to say that Morris did make a film, and Herzog came through on the bet resulting in one of Blank’s best films. Blank also documented the making of the notoriously chaotic production of Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, made with actor Klaus Kinski in the rainforests of South America. The obsessive ambitions of the film’s main character to build an opera house in the Amazonian jungle mirrored the obsessive ambitions of the filmmaker Herzog to replicate these physical feats in film and tell his story. Herzog did engineer moving a 340-ton ship up the Amazon and carried it across an isthmus to another river while also getting caught up in a military conflict between Peru and Ecuador.

Herzog speaks about Blank and that documentary, Burden of Dreams in the clip below.

The Film & Media Archive has several films by Les Blank in the Henry Hampton Collection including, Dizzy Gillespie, an early film focusing on the jazz  trumpeter, composer and arranger where he discusses his life and musical theories, Sun’s gonna shine, a lyrical recreation of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ decision at age eight to stop chopping cotton and start singing for his living, Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, a film about the famed blues musician, and Running Around Like a Chicken With Its Head Cut Off,  Les Blank’s first student film, a homage to Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, the film that inspired Blank to become a filmmaker.

Ten Freedom Summers

14 Dec

Jazz musician Wadada Leo Smith has released a work inspired by the civil rights movement which spans four disks. The nineteen compositions of this ambitious work were created over thirty-five years and Smith has said of the piece, “Ten Freedom Summers is one of my life’s defining works.”

Wadada Leo Smith has accomplished in musical form what Henry Hampton did in his documentaries Eyes on the Prize I and II. The piece linked above, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days,” is inspired by one of the defining moments from the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. Other song titles reflect different pivotal moments also depicted in Eyes on the Prize: Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless, Black Church, Freedom Summer: Voter Registration, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Freedom Riders Ride, Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years’ Journey for Liberty and Justice, The Little Rock Nine: A Force for Desegregation in Education, 1957, Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, The Prophecy.

Those titles are not an exhaustive list as Smith also has compositions influenced and inspired by Dred Scott, Malcolm X (Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahada), the Space Age, and the events on September 11, 2001. The titles reflect an epic historical journey whose guiding through-line is the civil rights movement, but the songs expand and weave into other major events and stories from the past thirty-five years.

The music on Ten Freedom Summers is played by an orchestral ensemble whose core is made up of Smith’s Golden Quartet/Quintet ( pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, drummer Susie Ibarra and/or drummer Pheeroan akLaaf). Additional players include the eight-piece ensemble Southwest Chamber Music and the entire work was conducted by Grammy Award-winner Jeff von der Schmidt.

The trumpeter and leader himself plays at the peak of his powers at age 70. Smith’s incorporation of the echoing atmospheric aesthetic and tone of Miles Davis in his sound over the last 15 years is now another part of his very own overall recognizable and distinct style. Smith’s sense of human spirituality serves as a grounding point in his approach of the controversial themes on Ten Freedom Summers. – All About Jazz,

Smith wrote the first piece of this work “Medgar Evers” in 1977 as an elegiac tribute to one of the fallen heroes of the movement in Mississippi. He continued composing other works till they evolved into the nineteen piece project. Speaking of the work and its place in his life, Smith has said,

“I was born in 1941 and grew up in segregated Mississippi and experienced the conditions which made it imperative for an activist movement for equality. I saw that stuff happening. Those are the moments that triggered this. It was in that same environment that I had my first dreams of becoming a composer and performer.” – Cuneiform Records