Like a musical jam session – a jazzy musical jam session, some might say- Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense weaves its way through interviews with various musicians, along with brief (and sometimes lengthy) samples of those musicians performing live. For those with special ties to a particular jazz movement, or to musicians in general, this may be the perfect format for a documentary on such a nebulous subject, but to me it seemed more like a group of filmmakers (Micahel Rivoira, Lars Larson, Peter J. Vogt) struggling to find a common thread amidst their amassed collection of 75 interviews and 25 hours of live footage.
Each time the film focuses its attentions on a musician, it feels like a new featurette, rather than a series of connected film segments. The disjointed vibe of this movie isn’t simply because jazz is a complicated subject (it surely is) but because it never feels like the filmmakers decided what story they were attempting to tell. If they were attempting to shed light on a new jazz movement, it’s not cohesive enough, but if they were simply attempting to present various jazz musicians, there’s not enough substantive interview material. Whatever the case, the documentary feels unfortunately shallow, with the only obvious theme being how small the jazz scene is and how disgruntled this makes some of the musicians. Again, if this is the point of the film, there should at least be a counter-balanced presentation describing what percentage of musicians in ANY genre ever manage to make a living from their passion alone. This idea is sorely lacking in Icons Among Us, which instead returns again and again to the idea that the general population does not appreciate jazz musicians as they should.
There are times when the film is quite engaging – mostly in the longer sections of performance. At these times we get to see musicians truly in their element, expressing their love for the music they play and simultaneously helping us as an audience to understand what it is about jazz that is so elusive. At the same time, we’re able to witness the vast differences between various jazz sub-genres and what an open genre jazz really is. Overall, this is a disappointing documentary. It starts out promisingly enough but quickly loses itself in its own complications.
As a side note, since I consider myself a jazz outsider, I loaned this film to a friend who lives and breathes jazz to see how her opinion would differ from my own. She actually disliked the film more than me and found the attitudes of the artists overshadowed the presentation of the music.
Zach’s Rating: C-
Perfect For: Those who feel a close tie to jazz music, however they define it
Stay Away if: You’re looking for information on the current state of jazz
To purchase Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense, visit Amazon