February 21, 2009


Two '80s Film Flashbacks: Sonny Rollins and Al Green Documentaries, New on DVD (WILL FRIEDWALD, 2/21/09, WSJ)

[T]hese two films, newly released on DVD by Acorn Media, hold up well as vital profiles of their subjects at turning points in their lives, each combining a concert film with a journalistic backstory. They also remind us how much the genre has changed in the past two decades, a period of ever-shortening attention spans. When Mr. Mugge made these documentaries (both of which exceed 1½ hours in length, with not a minute wasted), it didn't seem like too much to ask an audience to watch a man play a sax for 10 minutes straight.

"Saxophone Colossus," which takes its title from Mr. Rollins's celebrated 1956 album, begins with the musician talking about how he prepares for a performance; although it isn't exactly through "meditating," he does drop that word, and both of Mr. Mugge's films are extended meditations on one man's contributions to music.

The filmmaker and his camera crew capture Mr. Rollins in performance at two events. At the first, he and the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra play the "Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra," Mr. Rollins's collaboration with the Finnish arranger-composer-conductor Heikki Saramanto. In the accompanying commentary, the director explains that he thought the work might become a jazz classic on the level of John Coltrane's suite "A Love Supreme." Instead, the concerto -- though it's a fascinating piece, which includes one movement that sounds inspired by Aaron Copland and another by Caribbean music -- sank into obscurity. It has never been issued on CD.

The other concert included in "Saxophone Colossus" is an August 1986 date in a rock quarry converted into a performance space. Mr. Mugge's intention was to show the high level at which Mr. Rollins performs even at a bread-and-butter gig with his regular working band (including trombonist Clifton Anderson and bassist Bob Cranshaw, who are still with him today).

Less than a half hour in, Mr. Rollins plays a short, unaccompanied medley of several themes, including "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" and "How Are Things in Glocca Morra," and then jumps off the stage. Apparently, he was frustrated by the sound of his tenor sax -- which had changed since it was relacquered. He was intending to head into the outdoor audience, and to play among them like a strolling musician. He hits the ground with such force that his heel bone snaps, and he lies down on the stone, flat on his back. Then, still horizontal, he begins to play "Autumn Nocturne," with neither the audience nor the band realizing that a bone is actually broken in his foot. In the days before tiny video cameras and cellphone photography, this was an extraordinary slice of reality to capture on film.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 21, 2009 10:22 AM
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