The city’s longest-running organization dedicated to weekly screenings of experimental film, documentaries, animation and video art.

February 10: Ron Mann’s Imagine the Sound


Sunday February 10, 2008, 7:00 pm

At the Spielberg Theatre at the Egyptian

Los Angeles Filmforum presents
Imagine the Sound by Ron Mann
Featuring Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Paul Bley, and Bill Dixon

Imagine the Sound (1981, color, 16mm/35mm screening from DVCam, 71 min)
Filmforum commences an intermittent series of documentaries focusing on avant-garde and free jazz, in part connected with the series of jazz films being presented at the Silent Movie Theatre.  Filmforum is co-presenting Ornette: Made in America by Shirley Clarke on Thursday February 7.  But tonight we are delighted to present the Los Angeles appearance of the new revival of Ron Mann’s vital film about free jazz from 1981.  A marvelous film for jazz fans and documentary fans, it digs deep into the side of improvised music not yet touched by Ken Burns and Wynton Marsalis.

The first feature documentary by Ron Mann (Grass, Comic Book Confidential) is an eloquent tribute to a group of highly celebrated artists that helped forge the avant-garde jazz of the 1960s.

Critic and film historian Jonathan Rosenbaum has said Imagine the Sound “may be the best documentary on free jazz that we have.”

The film features articulate interviews and dramatic performances by pianists Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley, tenor saxophone Archie Shepp, and trumpet player Bill Dixon.

Not since Scorsese’s The Last Waltz has a music documentary been so thorough and compatible with its subject. Alongside the dynamic performances, the film captures the diverse history and politicized roots of this unique musical genre.

Ron Mann’s fine, elegant documentary, his first feature-length work, showcases four specific players – pianist Paul Bley, trumpeter Bill Dixon, saxophonist Archie Shepp and pianist Cecil Taylor. But its true subject is the innovative, free jazz work done in the Sixties, and by extension the determination of these artists to break down the musical barriers that characterized that decade. One could point to any number of reasons why the film works so well, from Robert Fresco’s exquisite cinematography (prior to Imagine the Sound, music documentaries were shot entirely on the fly, and looked like it), to the charm of its subject. The film’s real genius, though, probably resides above all in its structure and editing. Mann and his collaborators have given us a near perfect précis on how and why free jazz developed, and the context from which it emerged, but they’ve also been wise enough to foreground the music without either relying on it too heavily or, worse, cutting it short. (A trap even its most illustrious predecessors usually fell into.) Imagine the Sound was also a seminal work in this city’s film history, serving as inspiration for the Toronto New Wave, which emerged in the late Eighties. The film’s hip sensibility broke ground as well, proving that it was possible to make films here that were neither shoddy American knock-offs (this was the tax shelter period after all) nor pedantic. “May be the best documentary on free jazz that we have” (Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader).- Steve Gravestock

Personnel: Cecil Taylor: piano; Paul Bley: piano; Archie Shepp: tenor and soprano saxophones, vocals; Kenny Werner: piano; Santo di Briano: bass; John Betch: drums; Bill Dixon: trumpet; Art Davis: bass; Freddie Waits: drums.

Production Notes: 71 minutes. 1981/2007. Digitally restored from its original 1981 release format in 16mm, mono (optical) sound to HD(High Definition), 5.1 stereo; the sound was remixed on ProTools from the original 35mm stereo recorded master and 16mm magnetic dialogue tracks.

More Production Notes:
Ron Mann (Director, Co-Producer)
Toronto-based director Ron Mann was only twenty-two years old when he made his first feature Imagine The Sound. Since 1981, Ron has won many awards for his documentaries, such as Comic Book Confidential and Grass, which are characterized by their exuberance and which focus on aspects of alternative culture.

Bill Smith (Interviewer, Co-Producer)
Writer, photographer, musician, record producer and art director/ editor of the internationally read Coda Magazine, Bill Smith is a major exponent of jazz music.

Sonya Polonsky (Editor)
Sonya began her career as the production manager of Woodstock.  After having worked as an editors assistant on Annie Hall and Raging Bull, Sonya went on to edit  Imagine the Sound.  Other editorial credits include Matewan and HBO’s Tales from the Crypt.

Robert Fresco (Cinematographer)
Considered to be one of Canada’s fi nest cinematographers, Bob Fresco has collaborated with Ron Mann on numerous documentaries including Imagine the Sound, Poetry in Motion, Twist, and Go Further.  Bob continues to work on feature films, commercials, documentaries and television series.

All About Jazz Review – Published: October 20, 2007
By Greg Camphire

The state of jazz in America in 1981 has remained a sort of lost history, in no small part due to the resounding indifference met by a brilliant film of the same year: Imagine the Sound. Now, with the Ron Mann-directed documentary reissued on DVD for the first time, this overshadowed period can reenter the spotlight to educate, enlighten and entertain those who either missed it the first time around or who weren’t around to experience it first-hand.

Visually remastered and sonically remixed for the digital age, Imagine the Sound is a stunning examination of four innovative, influential figures who began their careers in the 1960s and continue to be active well into the 21st century: pianists Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley; saxophonist Archie Shepp; and trumpeter Bill Dixon. Intertwining striking performance footage and insightful interviews, the film not only tackles weighty issues concerning jazz history, artistic aesthetics, economic struggles and race factors, but offers an exciting look at these musicians in the midst of their creative processes.

The charismatic Cecil Taylor nearly steals the show, between his athletic solo piano technique, abstract poetry recitals, interpretative dancing, stream-of-consciousness monologues and debonair fashion sense. In performance, Taylor fully displays the characteristics that have defined him: percussively hammering the keyboard as “88 tuned drums,” dropping bombs in the form of dissonant tone clusters, using ten fingers to imitate a dancer’s leaps in space, and exhibiting a full range of dynamics that includes a delicate lyrical touch.

It’s fascinating to compare and contrast the solo recitals of Taylor and Bley, each of whom has a highly personal approach. While Taylor’s dense flurries of notes require a muscularly agile attack, Bley makes an introverted use of space, letting overtones of single chords ring out while playing the strings and hammers inside the instrument. The pair’s differing styles are visually complimented as well: Taylor is shot against a bright, pure white background with refracting camera angles, while Bley is captured in the dim light and shadows of a darkened studio. But for all their divergent abstractions, the blues remains an integral element for the two. Bley periodically inserts fragmented yet soulful snippets of blues phrases into his improvisations, and Taylor simply sets fire to the keys as if he had sold his soul at some midnight Delta crossroads.

The blues is a powerful thread in the film, running through the music of Archie Shepp as well, and the saxophonist’s articulate delivery, both in performance and conversation, speaks volumes. Two electrifying compositions are depicted featuring Shepp and his quartet in the studio. These searing workouts, where you can almost feel the beads of sweat sliding down Shepp’s expressive face, include the bebop-influenced “U-Jaama” and the loping Afro-Latin rhythm of the spoken-word diatribe “Mama Rose.” Drummer John Betch is a revelation here, dancing all over the traps with a smooth elegance that belies his explosive licks and deep mastery of the compositional forms.

Bill Dixon’s all-star trio is equally compelling, employing blistering swing, shifting meters and ethereal, rubato ballads. Wonderful bassist Art Davis maintains a Zen-like calm, even at the most demanding tempos; and drummer Freddie Waits, who effortlessly switches from sticks to brushes to bare hands, blends a profound harmonic sensibility into the ensemble with his perfectly-tuned kit.

Dixon also has plenty to say when the trumpet is out of his mouth, and his forcefully opinionated style is captivating. Holding forth in sunglasses and black leather top hat, Dixon makes pointed commentary on the lack of opportunities for his unique brand of music. Claiming that race is a factor in denying him and other black artists the opportunities to perform, he shrewdly states, “I don’t know if that’s my paranoia, but it’s been my experience.”

The ultimate irony, as Shepp points out in an interview segment, is that the 1981 film was finally being made at a time when the achievements of these musicians’ far more influential forebears, innovators like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, had largely gone unnoticed by the public. Twenty-six years later, Imagine the Sound has finally made it to DVD, hopefully to help fill some of these holes in our collective memory and offer a more complete picture of jazz history.