In 1961, Ornette Coleman released the album that finally named a movement of young jazz musicians who were looking to push the music as far as it could go. Their sound was challenging, but explosive as new methods of improvisation rose to the forefront. Writer/director Tom Surgal gives us a comprehensive overview of this movement’s major players in his brilliantly engaging documentary Fire Music.
As to be expected, the story begins with Ornette and his strolling into town like a rogue gunslinger looking to stir the pot. He wasn’t looking to push buttons but ask questions, but those questions pushed buttons. The bebop old guard dismissed him as some cat who couldn’t play when he was actually developing an entirely new tonality. Around that time, Cecil Taylor, a classically trained pianist with years of schooling behind him, began approaching music the same way. Guys like Eric Dolphy and Don Cherry noticed, and soon there was a musician’s guild of free players. Suddenly, John Coltrane, the jazz superstar of the era, was checking out Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp and getting them major record contracts with Impulse! Records.
From there, the scene exploded: The Art Ensemble of Chicago, M’Boom (featuring legendary bebop drummer Max Roach), loft performances, and beyond. Europe took notice, and Peter Brötzmann (a personal favorite) was blaring alongside Dutch drummer Han Bennink and Englishmen Evan Parker and Derek Bailey when not creating musical explosions in Globe Unity Orchestra. Speaking of orchestras, we finally hear about the master of them all, Sun Ra. He came from swing and doo-wop to create otherworldly sounds that NO ONE has ever been able to replicate, except for his continuing “Arkestra,” currently under the direction of longtime saxophonist Marshall Allen (97 years old and still cooking your a*s to a crisp).
“…a movement of young jazz musicians who were looking to push the music as far as it could go.”
Fire Music is a comprehensive overview of the major players in this wild, unrelenting scene. Keep in mind, this is a 90-minute documentary, not a 20-hour Ken Burns epic, so it moves quickly. The point, however, is not to be the ultimate authority on the subject but to discuss the motivations and mindsets of the artists involved. If you’re a kid just getting into avant-garde free jazz and wondering which records to buy, this is a hell of a place to start. Even for a seasoned music nerd with more CDs and LPs than can be counted, it’s a fascinating examination of the origins and the subsequent outbreak of some of the most compelling, challenging, and confrontational music ever to be performed in the past hundred years.
Because of the film’s swift pace, if you’re a music nerd, you’ll be screaming things like, “That’s it for Albert Ayler! REALLY!!!” To reiterate, this is not an in-depth tome, nor is it intended to be. The point is to discuss the musicians that changed the face of music forever. As tempting as it may be to write the movie off for its all-too-quick overview of this or that artist, it’s important to remember that at least they were mentioned, and that was the point. Besides, where else are you going to hear these tales directly from the people who were there when it happened? None of us are getting any younger, right?
Books have been written about most of these artists. Some of them still deserve a biography of their own. Here, we meet them briefly, but that few minutes definitely makes a lasting impression. Whether you’re already into this stuff or just dipping your toe into the Kool-Aid, Fire Music delivers all the brimstone and more. Just be ready.
Header Image courtesy of Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos
"…delivers all the brimstone and more."