'Icons Among Us': An Interview With Executive Producer John Comerford : A Blog Supreme Recently I spent some time watching a new documentary film series on modern jazz titled Icons Among Us: Jazz In The Present Tense. The series — which aired on The Documentary Channel and is now ma

'Icons Among Us': An Interview With Executive Producer John Comerford

Recently I spent some time watching a new documentary film series on modern jazz titled Icons Among Us: Jazz In The Present Tense. The series -- which aired on The Documentary Channel and is now making the rounds at film festivals -- is an in-depth look at the current state of contemporary jazz and improvised music, and features nearly every jazz artist you can think of.

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

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Last week, I spoke with co-director Michael Rivoira about the film's origins and themes, which you can read here. In this second part, I talked with the film's executive producer John Comerford about his role in the project and what he hopes people will get out of the series.

How did you become involved in the film project, and what was your role in the series and theatrical release?

John Comerford: I was originally approached by Michael Rivoira and Lars Larson, the two co-directors on the film, to jump on board as the producer back about seven years ago or so. And when they approached me, the first question on my mind as a producer -- I think as any good producer looks at a potential opportunity when you evaluate it -- is: what's the sense of urgency for telling the story?

The reason that jazz really appealed to me was its improvisational quality and the excitement of never doing the same thing the same way. Every night when you see a jazz performance, you may be exposed to something completely new and be at a moment of discovery with the musician. That is really powerful and can be experienced along with the musician as an audience member, because they're not sure what's unfolding either.

The urgency came from the directors' communication and relationships with musicians who were reacting to the historical portrait of jazz that had just been completed by the great documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. And I think that the contacts the directors had were feeling like jazz is primarily about spontaneity and improvisation, so we should pay attention to the moment. And the moment at the turn of the millennium was dictating that we listen to the voices of the living generation of musicians and we elevate them and explore their work and deepen their audiences. And their response to it was, "Hey, what about us?"

Do you see this film as a continuation of the Burns series?

JC: That historical look at the art form was obviously an enormous undertaking and very powerful in terms of its depth, research, and its way of telling a story about jazz that gave it meaning in our American experience -- and to a degree our global experience of the music.

I think clearly, from the perspective of his job as a historian, is to reflect, is to create a story and narrative that's viable in relationship to things that are well-documented, understood, and discussed in a forum and have been worked through. It's left to other artists, and in particular other filmmakers, to pick up where he left off. I mean that's jazz right there, in a sense. It's like "here's my contribution; here's my riff on things, okay pick it up ... go."

Dave King

Dave King of The Bad Plus from 'Icons Among Us.' Photo Credit: Lars Larson.

I think the film captures this somewhat spontaneous and conversational feeling, mirroring jazz music. It's more of a free-form look at the music and the philosophies behind it. How much did you plan in terms of structure and conveying certain points of view in that conversation?

JC: You know, it's a really interesting dynamic as a documentary filmmaker because you're dealing with something that can take a turn at any direction.

It's like what Wayne Shorter says in the film, "There are no courses on 'Unexpected 101.'" It's sort of a trait you have to pick up from life and think, "Well, how do I deal with this unexpected situation and do it in a way that's hopefully somewhat graceful and intelligent and keeps my momentum moving forward and rolling?"

And that, as filmmakers, was something we were dealing with on a regular basis. We were quite open to being led in specific directions and not trying to force our selections or choices of musicians and create a predestined narrative that had been worked out or scripted ahead of time. We were hyper-aware of not falling victim to that idea of having them fit into our mold.

The film is broken down into four 60-minute sections for the series -- each covering a general arc and theme. I have not seen the theatrical version, so how do those arcs differ in that version compared to the longer series? How did you manipulate the form to accommodate?

JC: It's very different structurally, and a challenge the directors faced. In the episodic form, if you were to see that in your mind's eye as four small arches, and then a larger arch that encompasses those smaller arches, you would have a picture of how this thing looks and how it feels. The chief component of that is the fact that it's episodic. The feature film is different because you're now working in three-act structure with an overall character that needs to change or develop over the course of the 90 to 120 minutes.

One of the things we could all agree on quite quickly was that the musical sections -- in particular, in the theatrical cut -- really have to be extended because we're dealing with a larger amount of time. But most important, we're dealing with a cinematic construct which lends itself to theatrical exhibition, and those musical sequences can be experienced with a greater sense of appreciation in that larger-than-life context.

You'd be horrified to know then that I watched the series at work, at my desk, on my laptop.

JC: [laughs]

Donald Harrison

Donald Harrison teaching a student, from 'Icons Among Us.' Photo by Lars Larson.

However, the film still looked beautiful. Do you have any specific goals or aspirations now that the film is done and making the rounds on the festival circuit? How can jazz educators and students of jazz, not to mention musicians themselves, benefit from the film?

JC: From the point of view of jazz education, [the film shows] value in not only strengthening those improvisational muscles, but also the nature of musical virtuosity and really striving for excellence in terms of discipline associated with practice. And that heavy-handed stuff [was] couched in having fun and being spontaneous and being impulsive. And as Bill Frisell says in one episode, "The possibilities are just endless." That [message] being transmitted to kids of all ages as they develop into adults is a really powerful wish that we have.

We're really hoping that for people that have heard the word jazz, and maybe in the same way someone might approach wine, thought, "My God, there's so much depth there and I feel like its unapproachable; how do I get in?" -- that we're able to say jazz is represented by people in all different age groups, ethnic groups, and influenced by different traditions of music.

From swing, to bossa nova, to free jazz, to bebop, to piano jazz, to jazz vocals are [all] ways to get into this thing called jazz -- that are really turning out really [great] players and composers right now. I hope people are not afraid to listen deeply, and try something that will surprise them and feed them culturally and artistically.

I think any person involved in a creative endeavor, these folks are so dedicated, passionate, talented and committed to their art form that the work that they're doing just speaks volumes about the authentic pursuit that's infinite or greater than one's self. And in those terms, because I've lived it and we made the film over a seven-year period, I've gotten to know these artists, these human beings, and they're just extraordinary. We've got a lot to learn from them and their approaches and their art. So I hope it permeates actors, painters, sculptors, dancers and gives them fuels for their artistic and creative fires.