Festival Curator Matthew Barrington shares the philosophy behind programming ‘Jazz on Screen’, the selection of films screening at Barbican to the beat of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival.
Jazz is a genre predicated on musical proficiency. The same old standards may have endured over the years, but how each maestro takes them on is ever changing. Using their own unique language, with notes as their letters and licks as their words, each player colours a piece with their own style. Caravan by Thelonius Monk or Buddy Rich; Goodbye Mr. Pork Pie Hat by Charles Mingus or Jeff Beck—you know what to expect, but you recoil at how faithfully or ruthlessly they’ll treat them. The same goes for the EFG London Jazz Festival, an annual staple of the city’s music scene, but one that nonetheless offers new and exciting music and talent.
For ‘Jazz on Screen’, the filmic section of the festival, this is no less the case: ‘across the various editions we've had a really varied selection of films’, claims curator Matthew Barrington, ‘but try to select films from archives or restorations, to provide the audience with films they may not have heard of or come across before. To choose films we look across different film archives, looking for films with notable jazz scores resulting, we hope in a varied selection.’ So these films, then, are not exponents of jazz theory or how to make it as a musician. Instead, what this programme seeks to show is the cause-effect of jazz music culture and society, exploring issues of race and politics through the arts. The programme ‘think's about what the genre means to people…by the way in which jazz across the three films represents some kind of freedom of expression or a form of rebellion…jazz in each of these films reflects a path to a different way of looking at life.’
It’s up to Barrington, then, which ‘different ways of looking at life’ are allowed into the programme—a lot of power for one person! However, much like a revered standard, Barrington approaches the task as openly as possible: ‘we like to expand upon what people think of when they think about jazz, to show how it functions in other cultures and how it has been represented and depicted over the years. In each of these films, hopefully there's something new, something unexpected to audiences.’ The three-film programme consists of three different perspectives on the genre: one somewhat predictably from the US, but also from Japan and even Sweden; perspectives which Barrington claims are ‘as interesting and is a less obvious way to approach this, and hopefully something audiences respond to.’ After all, jazz is, in essence, a celebration of the unexpected.
However, there’s yet another level of diversity within this, between the US film Imagine the Sound (Ronn Mann, 1981) being a documentary, while the other two—Sven Klang’s Combo (Stellan Olsson, 1976) and The Stormy Man (Umetsugu Inoue, 1957)—are fictional. As Barrington points out, this harks back to a fundamental question in this programme: ‘how do you visualise jazz?’ For this bit, it might be best to quote the curator at length:
‘Not only is it a character in these films, but it also frames other characters and functions as an important part of their characterization, so in a way we can say jazz is present in three separate ways, in the narrative, as a character and as a mode of characterisation. Each film also has a position on 'how do you film jazz', and each film differs in how jazz is filmed, in doing so creating it's own distinct composition which also has an effect on how the film thinks about jazz. For example in Stormy Man, it's really fast, lots of cuts, a lot of energy. In Svan Klangs Quintet, the camera is more interested in the wholeness and how different elements respond to one another, so there are longer takes with each performer in the frame, whereas Imagine the Sound is trying to come up with unexpected angles and perspectives, to reflect the experimental approach of the free jazz movement.’
So, ‘Jazz on Screen’ is not just a supplement to the festival, but a celebration in itself. As a cause-effect illustration of jazz culture, the programme ‘provides a unique opportunity to position jazz in a specific time and place, so not only do we hear and see jazz being played across these films, but there is attention being paid to the wider cultural and societal meaning of jazz’. This ‘time and place’ seems more present in film, which harks back to the time in which it was made, than in music, which is eternalised by rendition, particularly in jazz.
Influenced by MoMA’s 2008 Jazz Score programme, and the Jazz Goes to the Movies programme at Il Cinema Ritrovato, ‘Jazz on Film’ is set to deliver a side of jazz not seen in the music, yet eternally informed by it. ‘Other programmes we have found [have] more expansive and larger and we have been able to draw on some of these for research and to think about what else exists and how others approach these ideas.’ Armed with a behemoth musical culture, Matthew Barrington and his team have harnessed the power of the staff to produce a lyrical image of the musical genre, and is certainly one you won’t want to miss.
Jazz on Screen will run at Barbican Cinema as part of EFG London Jazz Festival 11th to 14th November 2023