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Ornette Coleman’s Inspired Soundtrack for “Who’s Crazy?” – The New Yorker

Ornette Coleman’s Inspired Soundtrack for “Who’s Crazy?” – The New Yorker

Ornette Coleman’s Inspired Soundtrack for “Who’s Crazy?”
Richard Brody March 13, 2017

Thanks to Ornette Coleman (pictured here, in 1966) and his eponymous trio, some of the best music ever made for a movie is on display in Thomas White’s “Who’s Crazy?”COURTESY YOUTUBE
The excessive interest in film scores is as bad for music as it is for movies. Most movie music is dull to listen to on its own, no matter how well it enhances the film in which it’s deployed. With relatively few exceptions, the best effects that scores can have are subliminal, fused with and inseparable from the over-all experience of the movie. That’s because, for the most part, music is used in movies as sonic wallpaper, covering silences and images with an indifferent and casually factitious unity. That’s also why, for the most part, what makes movie music distinctive isn’t so much the composition itself as the way that it’s used. Creative soundtracks take musical pieces that might otherwise be only adequate, or at least not significantly better than other scores, and elevate them to the realm of the filmmaker’s own artistry. On the other hand, the use of great music in movies poses an exceptional challenge for filmmakers, who must make a movie that’s worthy of its soundtrack, and use the scores in a way that rivals the music itself in creative originality.
Some of the best music ever made for use in a movie is on display in a long-belated new release, “Who’s Crazy?,” directed by Thomas White, who shot the film in 1965 and completed it in 1966. He was unable to get it released at the time, and hasn’t made another feature to date. (He’s now eighty-five.) “Who’s Crazy?” is currently in its first theatrical run, at Film Society of Lincoln Center. Most of the film’s music is by the Ornette Coleman Trio—the regular working group of the modern-jazz luminary, featuring the bassist David Izenzon and the percussionist Charles Moffett. Coleman, who died in 2015, primarily played alto sax; at the time of the soundtrack recording, in a Paris studio, he was adding violin and trumpet to his repertory, and he plays them frequently in the film.
The movie itself transforms the barest outlines of a narrative—patients from a mental institution escape from a bus and form a society apart in an abandoned farmhouse—into a low-budget frenzy of theatrical invention. Its actors are members of the Living Theatre; White films them with an agile camera and a charcoal-toned palette in a blasted winter landscape. He revels in their flamboyant playfulness and its earnest purpose, in their fusion of slapstick antics with hieratic exaltation. White observes the transformation of the secret society of outsiders into a cult of love, complete with its metaphysical mysteries and rowdy rites. It’s a nearly lost masterwork of ecstatic cinema, and the music—and White’s use of it—plays a major role in whipping up ecstasies.
The Coleman Trio’s performances for “Who’s Crazy?” are well worth obsessing over on their own (and have, in fact, been issued as a double-LP and a two-CD set). They are distinguished from Coleman’s concert work by their terseness. In concert, Coleman constructed mighty solos that ran more than ten minutes and even as many as twenty; in the studio recording for “Who’s Crazy?,” where the scenes are brief, the trio shifted gears to match the events onscreen, leading to short, sharply focussed solos, matched by fervent, inspired outpourings from Izenzon and Moffett that distill a single mood or tone. If these abbreviated performances offer only a partial view of the trio’s full powers, the recording, which runs more than eighty minutes, is still worthy to stand alongside the group’s heralded mid-sixties albums, “At the ‘Golden Circle’ Stockholm,” Volumes 1 and 2; and “Town Hall, 1962.”
There’s a documentary, by the British filmmaker Dick Fontaine, of the Paris recording sessions in which the trio made the score. The trio improvised, but on the basis of nine new compositions by Coleman that they had rehearsed. Thomas White participated in the session in a significant way: the musicians worked in a studio in which they viewed a (silent) projection of the film, scene by scene, and, with their eyes largely glued to that screen, performed the music in response to it. (That’s also how Miles Davis and his quintet recorded, in 1957, the music for Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows.”) Without at all intruding on the musicians’ art, White guides them to the needs of the film, requesting an additional take, for instance, when the beginning of a track doesn’t match up with the beginning of a sequence.
When Moffett complains that White should have stopped the performance as soon as he saw that it was off, the director says that he has never called “Cut!” on one of their performances—and Coleman defuses the tension with a joke: “We never had any knives!” (The musicians gently mock the film between takes.) Fontaine’s documentary doesn’t probe the musicians’ work or world exceptionally deeply, but it offers exciting glimpses of the trio in a state of engaged devotion (Moffett’s joy in performing has a special radiance) and creative offhandedness, as in rare sequences of Coleman playing piano (torrentially, precisely), which he never did on record. It also features them in discussion of the rigors of their profession—and of their lives over all.
Coleman tells Fontaine, “All the failure I’ve had has been related to my sex life, to my race, and to the kind of music I’m playing, and I can’t change neither one.” He discusses growing up in the South and seeing black people who have “a master’s degree in something and get a job as a janitor,” and talks about selling lots of records and seeing little money from it, as a result of which he “retreated in America” (he neither recorded nor performed publicly in 1963 and 1964). Moffett describes their condition as black artists in the United States as “living on a ghost of a chance”; Izenzon, who is white, marvels at the strength of character required by his bandmates’ endurance as black men in the South, and as black musicians of unyielding conviction. Coleman adds a fillip of personal philosophy that puts his immediate problems into a wider artistic context of creative ferment: “I’m in love with eternity . . . I don’t care about how many changes that go on, as long as it keeps going on.”
White’s idea to employ the Coleman Trio for the “Who’s Crazy?” score was an inspiration in itself; how he used the music in the film is an even greater inspiration. First—as the credits at the head of the film announce—he recorded other musicians to use on the soundtrack, too: Marianne Faithfull, singing the Coleman composition “Sadness” (which the trio had recorded during the 1962 concert at Town Hall), plus a rock/jazz organ trio called Les Gottamou, as well as other singers and a guitarist. Which is to say that the credits alone promise a rich and varied musical jambalaya, and that’s exactly what White provides—with a simple but bold technical imagination. He abruptly intercuts the different musical sources throughout the film, following a scene with drone-like chanting and two women’s incantation of a naïvely metaphysical meditation with one of Coleman’s catchiest blues jaunts. He blends Coleman’s music with the recordings of actors’ sounds on location—scraping and stomping and shouting—and he blends a woman’s chant with Coleman’s violin, and a woman’s tootling on a soprano recorder with Coleman’s sax.
Some of the most distinctive music editing comes in a scene of ritual seduction, when the organists of Les Gottamou come in with a slow and funky blues, which White intercuts with rapid playing by the Coleman Trio, overlaid with chanting by the actors. In a scene of a mystic marriage, Coleman drops out altogether and the organ group builds to a frenzied discothèque crescendo along with the clattering and the shouting of the celebrants. In a climactic chase scene, White intercuts different Coleman performances, on trumpet and saxophone, with a hectic brevity that treats the jazz genius’s improvisations like actual movie music without betraying their originality. With its harsh disjunctions and clashing textures, the soundtrack plays like a hard-edged collage.
If the very description of White’s jagged juxtapositions is agitating, their effect in the film is all the more energizing. Coleman’s music isn’t, in the literal sense, dance music; it’s concert music, and people sit and listen to it. (Even when, in the nineteen-seventies, Coleman formed an electric band that borrowed rock rhythms, he called its first album “Dancing in Your Head.”) The actors in “Who’s Crazy?” don’t dance to the soundtrack, either—but virtually everything that they do is a dance to unheard music. The wild immediacy of the Living Theatre’s performances provides the movie with its ecstatic core, and the rhythmic clashes and tonal contrasts that White conjures, in part, through the inspired use of the Ornette Coleman Trio tear through the screen and make for a kind of total cinematic music, drawing viewers into the raucous, hallucinatory, sanctified revelry.


Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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