J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Work: Musician


Being a jazz musician is hard work. If you did not know that already, Daniel Krause’s new documentary Musician (clip here) will make it clear to you. If you see it at Two Boots’ Pioneer Cinema in the next five days, you will also get to hear a solo set from its protagonist: Ken Vandermark.

According to the Chicago based reed player, seven consecutive solo sets is an unusual stand for him, but as is amply demonstrated in the film, Vandermark is a road warrior, who probably would not turn down any doable gig. Thursday night his pre-film set consisted of two free improvisations on clarinet, and two pieces for tenor, including “Waltz for Monk” which was freshly composed as of that morning. With a fittingly loping rhythm, “Waltz” shows Vandermark’s prolific talent as a composer. In the Q&A following, Vandermark spoke of trying to build an audience in rock clubs. Despite what could be called avant-garde inclinations, one can see his appeal to that demographic, given his passionate style and penchant for tonguing and various dramatic effects.

As for the film itself, it certainly rang true to what I have been told about the business side of a jazz musician’s life. Krause arguably makes a pacing mistake by starting with an extended look at Vandermark’s composing process. Once we start to see him interacting more with musicians and professional colleagues, the film picks up dramatically. Vandermark seems to be a naturally reserved person, but as the film progresses, his sense of humor starts to emerge. Clocking in at 52 minutes, Musician also gives neophyte viewers a manageable sampling of contemporary avant-garde jazz through clips of Vandermark’s performances.

Through Musician, the audience gets to share the joy of booking gigs. You will see Vandermark pay one sideman a dollar extra for driving. You will start to understand how much fun load-in can be. I have yet to hear a musician speak a kind word about Canadian customs, and Vandermark’s band experiences the requisite hassles to be faced by a car full of musicians trying to cross the northern border. From my limited perspective, the film is pretty much spot on.

Musician is part of Krause’s Work series of documentaries based on interesting occupations—sort of a modern cinematic equivalent of Studs Terkel’s Working. He has a good cinematic eye and captured many telling moments. The double feature of Vandermark and Vandermark continues at the Pioneer through Sept. 11th.

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