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ERIC FRIEDLER: IT MUST SCHWING! THE BLUE NOTE STORY (2018) - SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL

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FRANCIS "FRANK" WOLFF AND ALFRED LION

A stunning German recreation of the world of Blue Note Records

There was a movie about this subject last year, Sophie Huber's 2018 Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes. It's an interesting, well-made film about this key jazz record label and the pair of German Jewish immigrants, Alfred Lion, Francis Wolff, behind it. But you won't ask why there should be another film so soon when you see this one.

This is a bigger production and a German one, executive produced by Wim Wenders and directed by the major German documentary filmmaker, Eric Friedler. The result is a rich experience. There is a parade of jazz greats, just about anyone still living who recorded during the glory days from 1939 to 1965. Beyond that, there are the visuals. The script by Silke Sch├╝tze and the director Eric Friedler called for thirty minutes of animation to bring lost moments of Alfred and Frank's world in Germany and America to life. These are done in an original way that's stylized but fairly realistic. Toward the end there is a sequence of really snappy, gorgeous animation showing how the graphics of some of the classic Blue Note album covers are put together: it's a delight to the eye. The constant excerpts of key recordings alternate with the eye candy of the special visuals while the voices of jazz greats like Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Lou Donaldson, and Wayne Shorter, alternating with narration by several jazz historians, tell us what Blue Note was like. It's an impressive mix, and beautifully organized.

It was like a family. Frank and Alfred treated their African American musicians, victims of racism, with kindness because they were themselves refugees from extreme persecution. We hear at length about the recording sessions, very late at night, the drinks and sandwiches provided for all sessions, the taxis later to New Jersey to Rudy van Gelder's recording studio, the unique respect, and in the Sixties, the way Blue Note played a part in the civil rights movement. Alfred and Frank were always crusaders for civil rights. They valued their musicians. They also focused on modern jazz, not the retro stuff, and they let the musicians play what they wanted to play - though indeed, always there, paying attention, dancing a silly little off-beat jiggly dance (noted in the other film) when happy, insisted when they were not that the piece should be played again, because it "must schwing."

Each talking head contribution is in itself a portrait of the artist. It's extraordinary to hear at length from Sheila Jordan, a key jazz vocalist who is not 90, and still looks really good, hair and makeup immaculate. It's a little surprising that Ron Carter, the stellar bassist who has had a million recording dates, is still angry at the prejudice he experienced. Wayne Shorter, so enigmatic and sad as a player, is bubbly and full of smiles in speech. Rudy van Telder, 91, is giving his last interview. Lou Donaldson, 92, provides an essential running narrative in his high-pitched voice.

When Monk came along, it's acknowledged that he represented genius, and time is taken to listen to him and talk about him and watch him at work, including the spinning.

The film takes time to talk about too many individual recordings and artists to note here. One that stands out is perhaps their earlierst hit, Sidney Bechet's "Summertime," signaled as music whose soulful sweetness still resonates today. Of Blue Note's 1000 record albums, it's been said that 750 are classics. A lot of attention is paid to the distinctive Blue Note recorded sound and of the evolution of the recording studio, and the uniquely positive atmosphere Frank and Alfred maintained.

Pretty much any major jazz performer in the early years not included in this group who talk on camera simply isn't around anymore. Missing giants include John Coltrane, Monk, bebop keyboard pioneer Bud Powell, Art Blakey, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Joe Henderson and Jackie McLean. But we hear about them, especially Thelonius (who, we are reminded, nobody called that: he was "Bubba").

Another unique aspect of this film is its featuring of copious dialogue in German, both Alfred speaking and German announcers in New York broadcasting in the Thirties to Germany. It's stressed that both Alfred and Frank came from a part of the German Jewish population who considered themselves far more German than Jewish, in fact hardly Jewish at all, because they were not religious or particularly ethnic, and were very imbued with a sense of their German culture. (Neither of them ever lost his heavy German accent.) Alfred's England-based nephew points out his uncle's sense of Germanness. Perhaps this is a reason why Frank delayed a couple years coming to New York even though the Nazi scourge was clear. Frank was a photographer, had been from when the two met and became friends at the age of 16, and Frank and Alfred both loved jazz when the met, too.

This film talks more about Alfred as the one who ran the business till his retirement forced by ill health. But it delves further into the reclusive, private personality of Frank, giving numerous descriptions of what he was like by the musicians and revealing his black girlfriend even Alfred hadn't know of, who was present at his funeral with her children. The film warmly recreates the pair throughout in the animations, and presents interviews with both Alfred's wives. This, like the previous film, talks about Frank's omnipresent photo-making at recording sessions and at other odd moments. The film is full of Frank's striking black and white stills of the musicians making music, which make the essential part of some of the best of the albums. The other film shows a lot of the album covers too, but this one has the graphic animation of covers that is so dazzling and delightful.

In fact, it's hard to think of anything that could be better in this film, except sitting all day and listening to Blue Note Albums on a classic hi-fi record player. This is one of the best films about jazz in a while.

It Must Schwing: The Blue Note Story, 115 mins., debuted at Munich July 2018; also played at Telluride and Warsaw. It was screened for this review as part of the SFJFF. Jazz fans, don't miss it!
SFJFF showtimes:
Saturday July 20 1:15 Castro Theater
Tues., July 23 12:30 CineArts
Sat. July 28 1 pm Albany twin


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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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