‘Icons Among Us’: What we talk about when we talk about jazz

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It’s a little hard not to feel like a cheerleader when discussing the jazz documentary ‘Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense,’ a feature-length examination of 21st century jazz condensed from a four-part series that aired last year on the Documentary Channel. Screening Tuesday at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatreas part of the Jazz Bakery’s ‘Movable Feast’ series, the film offers a stirring portrait of some of the most exciting musicians in jazz with a mind-boggling array of interviews and performances that include Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Nicholas Payton, Bill Frisell, Brian Blade and recent Grammy nominees Vijay Iyer and Esperanza Spalding.

Functioning as a none-too-subtle response to the so-called traditionalist view of the music that looks to define jazz as an art form (represented here by Jazz at Lincoln Center’s ever-thoughtful Wynton Marsalis), ‘Icons’ highlights a wide variety of musicians who have little use for treading a familiar path or attaching a label to what they do.

Gifted pianists Robert Glasper and Matthew Shipp fire off some of the film’s strongest lines with occasionally profane insistance that the works of Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Keith Jarrett may be remarkable but aren’t the end of the line. In Shipp’s case this view of the past comes across with an almost combative intensity, but what inspiring figure who has dedicated his or her life to a discipline doesn’t strive to be the best?

The film also takes a refreshingly inclusive view of musicians commonly associated with the ‘jam band’ circuit, such as Marco Benevento, Medeski Martin and Wood and Garage a Trois saxophonist Skerik. While some musicians shrug off or even try rejecting that scene given its implications-- a supposedly aimless musical direction, an audience too zonked-out to know good from bad -- Benevento argues that the difference between the third-rail term ‘jam’ and the more accepted label ‘improvisation’ isn’t much more than the number of syllables. Although ‘Icons Among Us’ isn’t perfect -- it’s fairly New York-centric apart from intruiging detours into Europe and New Orleans, and it could be guilty of fanning the ultimately pointless ‘jazz wars’ that have blessedly died down of late -- it’s still a joy to watch. It’s hard not to wonder, just for fun, what stature would any given number of these players enjoy if the term ‘jazz’ weren’t sometimes loaded with certain baggage? If nothing else, the documentary is exactly the sort of hard evidence you want to put in front of anyone who believes jazz is anything less than alive and flush with exciting talent.


-- Chris Barton

‘Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense,’' Barnsdall Gallery Theater, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., L.A. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. $20. (310) 271-9039. Q&A follows the screening.