'Icons Among Us': An Interview With Director Michael Rivoira

Jazz Alive And Well In Stunning New Documentary

Last week I spent some quality time hunkered down on my couch watching a new documentary film series on modern jazz titled Icons Among Us: Jazz In The Present Tense. The films, which aired on The Documentary Channel and are currently being prepared for DVD release, are a somewhat free-form look at the current state of contemporary jazz and improvised music.

Unlike many documentaries on the subject, Icons Among Us doesn't spend much time catching up the viewer on the history of jazz. Nor does it seek any definitive answers on some of the heady questions it addresses. Instead, it simply sets out to depict jazz as a living, breathing and ever-evolving musical art form, and above all, expose more people to some of the best jazz artists around today.

And there sure are a lot of musicians included. It seemed like it had nearly every jazz artist you could think of who should be included: Dave Douglas, Ravi Coltrane, Greg Osby, Terence Blanchard, Robert Glasper, John Medeski, The Bad Plus, Jason Moran, Nicholas Payton, Wayne Shorter, Brian Blade, Chris Potter and so many more.

To get a small taste, watch this introductory clip featuring bassist Avishai Cohen and guitarist Bill Frisell:

I recently spoke with Michael Rivoira, one of the co-directors, about some of the themes the film addresses. Stay "tuned" for part two, in which I talk to the executive producer on the project, John Comerford.

How did you begin work on the film and what was your original goal?

Michael Rivoira: I actually started the project myself back in 2001, before I had met Lars (Larson) and John (Comerford) and Peter (J. Vogt). I just really saw a need for a fresh look at jazz; I saw a disconnect happening between the larger music community and society in general into what the perception of jazz was now, and I wanted to do a documentary to get deeper into this generation of jazz musicians.

So I just started doing it on my own, for about half a year, in Seattle — just locally because there are a lot of great things happening in Seattle. And then [once] I met Lars Larson — the director of photography and co-director, I feel the project went to a whole new level. He's got a great eye. I'm a first time director and they were able to bring a whole new possibility to the project.

Everybody is really into the music. [We] already knew the music pretty well and that was easy for me. I'm a huge music fan and I love jazz.

One of the primary themes of the film was that there are all these amazing types of jazz out there, and many entry points for people who say they don't like jazz or find it hard to get into.

MR: These days when you [say] "jazz" to people, they say, "Oh, jazz, I don't really get it," or they're saying, "I just don't like it." That was really what we wanted to redefine — to stop that from happening. That really is the mission, to show there's a whole new movement going on in the music.

Each episode in the series is framed by a particular motif. Did you have these themes in mind as you were gathering from musicians or did that take shape afterward?

MR: We threw out the same kinds of themes to every musician but it wasn't like we had a list. Sometimes it would go in a different direction so we would just let it go in that direction. There was no musician that was approached or thought of because of a certain theme or we thought they might be better to answer that. The funny thing was, every one of these musicians was on the same wavelength. It's really weird how some of them would say the exact same things and some of them wouldn't even know each other.

There's feeling right now in our world — and [the film] was started just post 9/11 and then through the course of this documentary — it's been a real time of change in our country and our world. We filmed a couple years before Katrina in New Orleans and then we filmed afterward. A lot of things have happened politically and socially and in our environment.

I just felt that there was this human element — no matter how much jazz we wanted to talk about or anything in the music, the conversations and the interviews always seemed to go way more towards the really optimistic, personal kind of message. And that was something that we discovered that kind of surprised us.


Matthew Shipp from 'Icons Among Us.' Photo by Lars Larson.

Matthew Shipp

I hesitate to compare it to the Ken Burns PBS series just because they are both documentaries about jazz, but your documentary, in some ways, felt like an unofficial sequel of sorts to me. But what struck me as interesting in your project is that there is no 'Previously on...' to catch you up on the history. It expects that you know those iconic people, the Dukes or Miles or Coltranes and instead you jump right in. It introduces us to this new cast of jazz artists who, and not to take anything away from Burns' project, were sort of glossed over or left out. It left the audience perhaps wondering, well, now what? Who's next? And your film seems to try to answer that and talk about jazz as it's happening right now.

MR: It's inevitable that Ken Burns' name will pop up with this because I don't know if there have been any other documentaries that have gone in and tried to take a deeper look into the art form. When I started the documentary, it was before I had any knowledge of the Ken Burns thing, which I loved, and I actually watched it in real time as it came out. My thing was when Ken Burns' [series] came out, I pretty much thought that my idea was canned, and I thought "Oh man, a 10-part series, there's no way they're not gonna cover a lot of [what I was trying to show in my film]. When it got to episode 10, he kind of glanced over it — that wasn't really his thing.

I actually read an interview with him recently where someone asked him, "Why didn't you take a deeper look?" and he said, "I'll maybe someday go back and try to answer that, but I kind of have a feeling someone will do that before I can get to it."

And that's obviously what Icons Among Us sets out do — to document these jazz musicians in the moment and capture their creativity and their evolution and their experiences making jazz right now.

MR: I feel like the title Icons Among Us is just that. We really wanted to show that there were these great musicians that have every ability and chance [to be] just as great as a Miles or Coltrane or greater. And they're here now. Jazz is so many types of music, and people don't get recognized until its too late. And that's unfortunate.

The best thing we can do is bring awareness to that and say "this is a live art form." I would see, night after night, these same players in the documentary — and there weren't that many people at the show some nights. It was almost like a practice for them. Fortunately, over the time this documentary has been made, I'm happy to say I've seen that people are more aware of it.

One of the first things that struck me from the beginning of the film was the amount of great jazz artists in the film. I wonder what the process was for deciding who to include and reaching out to those musicians.

MR: It was challenging in some respects. It is hard to approach musicians, even in the first couple years. It's hard to get people to want to be in a jazz documentary, especially after the Ken Burns thing, because, as we all know, there was a big debate in the jazz community — doesn't matter who was right or wrong or what they feel about it, but it caused people to talk. And I thought a lot of managers and companies were a little reserved, as well they should be, with their artists about what they were to be included in.

As far as who we picked to be in it, we just discussed the music all the time; we're big fans. I was trying to be as up on the music as possible. In every interview we tended to ask the artists who they were liking, who they felt was important, who do you feel should be in a documentary like this. And everybody would offer up three to four names and that would lead to somebody else. There were plenty of people I would've loved to have in it but you can only go so long.


Nicholas Payton from 'Icons Among Us.' Photo by Lars Larson.

Nicholas Payton

Who were some of the first musicians you went to?

MR: The first few people that really gave me the go-ahead in the jazz community, that said "you should do this," were Avishai Cohen, the bass player, Christopher Thomas who was playing with The Brian Blade Fellowship on bass, Jeff Ballard, the drummer, [with whom] I had a lot of great conversations. And then [bass player] Eric Revis. I got a lot of bass players in there. But those four guys really made me feel that this idea wasn't just something I should shelve and say "that was a neat idea but it's just too hard to make."

Avishai came up to me and said, "Hey man, we're gonna play in Costa Rica with the International Vamp Band. It's our first time in Costa Rica and we'd love for you to come along with us and film for a week. That way you'll already be doing the documentary and then you won't be able to stop." So I have to give him credit, because after I went on that trip, there was really no stopping to get this thing made.

The film really hits upon all those familiar tropes of family, identity, community and spirituality and how that influences the artists' lives and their music. Ultimately they're just doing the thing they love, and it happens to be jazz — it could probably equally be something else they were passionate about.

MR: Exactly. You nailed it right there, that's really what it's all about right there. These people are truly just honestly doing what they love. We would throw out questions or themes in the jazz community just to see what they would think about them like, "What do you think about jazz criticism or jazz education today?" and everybody would have something to say. You knew it was almost cliche in asking, but you had to ask things like, "What do you think about the relationship between hip-hop and jazz or rock and jazz?"

Or terms like "improvisation" versus "jamming."

MR: And when those themes pop up, we're not trying to answer any of those questions. It's almost like we're trying to say, "Hey, its all these." But that would be like the least they would want to talk about.

Another big motif, especially in the first two hours, really discusses the idea of getting away from "labels" and "preconceptions" about what jazz is or is not.

MR: You know, we've gone through so many time periods where people debated this or that: there were the "Young Lions," the whole "neo-conservative" thing in the '80s and there are all sorts of labels that have been put on it over time. I think jazz has suffered from [having] way too many labels, and the jazz world, at times, has been its own worst enemy.

Nicholas Payton had said it best that there are so many labels; in episode one he said there's black, white, you, me, rock, pop — everything's categorized for us. Which is reflected in jazz, because jazz is sometimes so divided and there's sometimes so many little different turns to what type of jazz this is and that. He said to me that's quite opposite of what it really is. I feel it's kind of hurt jazz.

More than anything, [the documentary is about] how these guys use the art of improvisation — that's really more where the heart of what you want to call jazz is for all these guys: the way that they improvise. And they improvise with each other, or they write composition, it's the way they approach the music. And of course Wynton will always have a different view than a Brian Haas of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey; that will always be. And that's fine.

We just wanted to really go in with no expectations of trying to push any agenda other than check out this great music and let the musicians speak for themselves and really not try to put any words in their mouth.

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