Ron Mann's feature film debut finally gets a North American DVD release, and fans familiar with the director's later work particularly Grass (1988) and Comic Book Confidential (1999) will find his approach pretty much devoid of animated visuals and kinetic editing & montages.
Part of that might be attributed to the high cost of optical effects for 16mm film (on which the low budget Imagine the Sound was shot), but more likely Mann recognized fancy editing would've belittled the intellectual and philosophical explanations given by the selected proponents of free jazz pianist Paul Bley, trumpet player Bill Dixon, tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, pianist Cecil Taylor, and pianist Kenny Werner.
The music performances which make up the bulk of the doc's running time are cleanly photographed, placing the musician and his instrument in an almost abstract environment of geometric shapes, elemental colours, and some elbow room to wander around and engage in some funky physical performance art as done by the eccentric Cecil Taylor.
The nuances and eccentricities of each musician are notable Taylor's style is like some adrenalized muscle that performs and reacts to every bit of improv done on piano, or in some wacky dance but the interview segments, filmed with the director, cinematographer, and sound recordist often reflected in nearby mirrors, reveal these men as intellectuals, philosophers, political activists, and poets.
Bill Dixon's self-absorbed playing style includes hushed bursts of clustered notes supported by a more traditional rhythm section, yet in the interviews he comes off as a savvy, practical-minded veteran who found his voice in the sixties, and took a path devoid of any commercial interests, choosing art, theory, and pedagogical endeavors. That's been the Achilles' heel in this music, he says, because in this music, the musicians are supposed to be dumb, which is a fair assessment of perhaps the most common stereotype applied to these artists whose music free from melody, a steady meter, or any propulsive drums occasionally sounds like a screeching racket made by angry infants.
Of course, these guys aren't amateurs nor infants. Mann's selection of music isn't the aggressive, busy material that tends to frighten people away; he's smartly chosen material that's arguably basic such as one musician extracting ideas from a piano in the doc's solo performance sets so that we're eased into the world of free jazz. Bigger sounds from Dixon and Archie Shepp (including a rap-bebop poetry fusion) are interpolated throughout the doc's narrative, but it's the solo performances that allow us to hear the short, untraditional ideas as they evolve between the musician's fingers, and piano keys.
Morningstar's transfer is made from a decent print, although the video noise reduction meant to diffuse some of the grain inherent to 16mm produces some visible compression. If the film was shot on Super16, the widescreen format makes sense, but the tight framing for the DVD leads one to believe the film's original 1.33:1 ratio was cropped a move that makes little sense, unless the point was to make the film more accessible to owners of widescreen TVs. The original mono mix has also been upgraded to a pair of pseudo-stereo and pseudo-5.1 mixes, and the results do offer a clean sound for the performances, although the original mono mix should've been retained for the DVD.
Extras include discographies for the featured musicians, though it's a shame Mann wasn't able to record a commentary track, and reflect on the project's genesis, what it was like to film such a unique collection of artists, and follow-up on some of the views expressed by the musicians, including elements of racism within the music industry, and the position of free jazz in today's highly commercial marketplace.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan