J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Enzo Avitabile: Multi-Instrumentalist, Multi-Fusions

It is a bit surprising Enzo Avitabile has yet to record a session either as a leader or a guest artist for ECM.  His multi-hyphenate world jazz fusion ought to appeal to label founder Manfred Eicher’s distinctive aesthetic.  He seems to be doing just fine regardless.  Having achieved material success through music, he now gets the musical documentary treatment courtesy of Jonathan Demme’s Enzo Avitabile Music Life (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Conservatory trained, Avitabile was initially drawn to funkier rhythms before incorporating classical Neapolitan traditions and wide ranging world music influences into his compositions and recordings.  Taking advantage of Demme’s cameras, Avitabile stages a number of special “with friends” performances, featuring a globally diverse cast of musical collaborators, the best known probably being jazz-fusion percussionist Trilok Gurtu.

There are a number of evocative instrumental performances, but good golly, are Avitabile’s lyrics ever didactic.  Considering his tremendous technique as a multi-reed-multi-instrumentalist (particularly on tenor), Avitabile’s frequent vocal turns do not exactly play to his strengths, but they let him make his political points in no uncertain terms.

Arguably, Avitabile was born to be a celebrity.  He obviously enjoys talking, but he never reveals anything outside of his standard press kit.  As far as viewers can tell, Demme never pushes him either.  While the silent observer approach has its merits, the execution here feels tightly controlled, even scripted, resulting in an extended publicity film for the Music Life sessions.

There is some elegant music in Music Life, but none of the melodies really linger in the inner-ear once the film is over, except perhaps the catchy groove of “Mane e mane.”  Frankly, Demme misses an opportunity to persuasively introduce Avitabile to larger American audience.  Instead, Music Life is a film for the established faithful.  It is reasonably pleasant once you get past Avitabile’s songs dedicated imaginary countries in the Middle East, but it never engages on a deeper level.  For pre-existing Avitabile fans, it opens today (10/18) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.  However, patrons of music docs might give higher priority to the Margaret Mead Film Festival, which screens As Time Goes By in Shanghai and This Ain’t No Mouse Music over the weekend.

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