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Inspiration Caught On Film

Thrill Jockey seeks source; Miles Davis found it

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Jazz fans are usually so thrilled to see archival material returned to print in these heady days of DVD's dominance that they are sometimes more forgiving than they should be. This short collection of songs features Miles Davis with his first famous quintet and Gil Evan's orchestra, and is taken from Robert Berridge's 1959 CBS broadcast filmed at the famed Studio 61 in New York City. The first release (along with a Duke Ellington collection) in a new Stars of Jazz series (EFOR Films, $14.95) is excellent viewing - what there is of it, anyway. At just 25 minutes and four songs, and with no extra features beyond a lineup screen, it's a brief sampler likely to leave the viewer unsated. Shot in black and white from a variety of camera angles, the opening number is a spirited and swinging performace of Davis' classic composition and one of jazz' greatest numbers, "So What," which also opens Davis' landmark Kind of Blue. That record is credited with changing the art form's landscape through it's (then) radical use of modal construction, best exemplified in the scene-stealing solo from John Coltrane. But it's Davis who is naturally the main focus of the camera's attention, and Miles is not shy about working it, his trademark half-scowl, half-sneer set off by his good looks, ascot and omnipresent cigarette. Even when Davis steps off stage to let others solo, the camera always seems to find Davis lurking in the background. Yes, Miles knew charisma, didn't he?

The rest of the short set features Davis with Gil Evans' big band, playing "The Duke," "Blues for Pablo" and "New Rhumba" from 1957's Miles Ahead, (1957) their first collaboration after 1949's seminal Birth of the Cool.

Watching Davis — the quintessential jazz musician oozing cool with every note from his trumpet — work with the pasty-skinned, nebbish-y arranger extraordinaire Evans and his big band, you're reminded what a fertile time in America's music history this era was, and what a special collaboration Davis and Evans had. In addition to Miles Ahead, the pairing also produced two more masterpieces, Sketches of Spain and Porgy & Bess.

Knowing how little there is from this era on film or TV, we should count our blessings — only do it quickly, because the DVD may finish before you.

The Thrill Of It All

Inspiration is a notoriously fickle muse; nothing brings an interview to a full-stop quicker than a poorly timed question about it. How do you explain what's behind the moment a musician decides to do A instead of B, a choice that can result in a whole new movement?

But mining that vein usually results in the richest interview payloads. Thrill Jockey label head Bettina Richards knows as much, and thought that rather than produce the stand self-congratulatory 10-year anniversary documentary, she would ask the groups on her label — like Mouse on Mars, the Mekons and Tortoise — and over 100 other interview subjects (ranging from Bjork to Bill Monroe) to provide some insight into the artistic process. Richards asked and commissioned the enthusiastic director Braden King (Dutch Harbor) to interview musicians, engineers, critics, filmmakers and even fans for a moment of inspiration. The result is Looking for a Thrill (Thrill Jockey, $19.99, all proceeds to Greenpeace), a truly unique document with over five hours of material.

"Can you pinpoint the source of someone's passion for music?" Richards asked in the press release.

The answers veer all over the map, of course, from serious moments of epiphany to ludicrous examples of fate's fickle finger. Tortoise's Johnny Herndon recounts a skateboarding trip on acid that winds up in a life-alerting listen to Charles Mingus' The Black Saint & the Sinner Lady; Chris Brokaw recalls a Zeitgeist show in Cleveland in front of 20 people that brought him back from the brink of quitting music all together; Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew remembers as a young kid reading articles about Pere Ubu and the Dictators in Creem, and thinking they must be as popular as the Led Zeppelins and Van Halens on the cover, then seeing the less-than-svelte members of the Minutemen and realizing that he didn't have to be a "skinny Brit" to play in a band; and Town & Country's Jim Dorling reminding us that our heroes' records are often more intimidating than inspiring:

"Listen to this James Brown album; what more can you say? Fuck you, who needs you," he laughed.

To keep costs down, Richards stipulated that only one camera angle was allowed for each interview.

There is a talking-heads element to the documentary, as another stipulation precluded outside footage. But to mix things up, the menu allows the watcher to view the interviews in a number of different methods; via type of musician (drummer, guitarist, engineer), theme (epiphanies, players, records) or alphabetically.

Be forewarned; The Thrill of It All is not for the casual music fan, but better suited to music obsessives or other artists. But if you count yourselves in those groups, there's plenty of fodder for thought.

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