Play Your Own Thing – A Story of Jazz in Europe (2006)

by | Feb 29, 2008 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Play Your Own Thing – A Story of Jazz in Europe (2006)

Documentary by Julian Benedikt
With many U.S. & European jazz figures, incl. Jan Garbarek, Gianluigi Trovesi, Duke Ellington, Coco Schumann, Martial Solal, Louis Armstrong, Juliette Greco, Miles Davis, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Zawinul, Klaus Schulz, Attila Zoller, Stefano Bollani, Ernrico Rava, Joachim Kühn, Tomasz Stanko, Don Cherry, Manfred Eicher
Studio: Medici Arts/EuroArts 2055748 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: Anamorphic/enhanced for 16:9 widescreen, color & B&W
Audio: DTS 5.1, DD 5.1, PCM Stereo (various languages)
Subtitles: English appears as required
No region code
Length: 90 minutes
Rating: *****

This is the same director as the just-reviewed Blue Note documentary, and in some ways even surpasses that one. Only recently has jazz from Europe made any inroads at all in the U.S., and this film is vitally important in making more Americans aware of the past history of jazz in Europe and the different paths which America’s one distinctive art form has taken there.

When mostly black American jazzmen first went to Europe they were welcomed and appreciated, without the prejudice they ran into in the U.S.  Eventually jazz was promoted by critics as a fine art in Europe, while it was ignored in the U.S.  Many of the European jazz men speak about the strong effect on them of hearing their first jazz – either from a visiting musician or in one case listening illegally to a jazz program on the BBC in East Germany.  American and European jazz players began to work together and learning from one another. The title of the film relates to the statements of several of the musicians interviewed along the lines of not just imitating the approach of the American jazzmen, but coming up with their own individual style.

While there is just as wide a spectrum of styles in Europe as in the U.S., many of the European musicians lean more toward the classical model in structure and harmonization, plus in some of the basic themes upon which they improvise. A number of European jazz (as well as rock) performers have built most of their repertory around improvisations on Bach and other well-known classical composer’s themes.

The Play Your Own Thing theme is illustrated strongly in an interview with Joe Zawinul, who knew the Hungarian guitarist Attila Zoller.  Zoller struggled to come up with a style as good as his heros such as Wes Montgomery, but his fellow European jazzmen told him forget that since he’ll never achieve it – what he should do is cultivate his Hungarian gypsy background instead.  And he did. (That recalled Piazzolla being told by Nadia Boulanger that the tango he played for her was what he should be doing instead of writing music to sound like Ravel or Stravinsky.)

Seeing some of the faces to go with names familiar to us for years is one of the pleasure of this fine documentary. Had never seen a photo of ECM’s Manfred Eicher nor of space/electronic music maven Klaus Schulz. There seemed more of a focus on the European avantgarde of jazz than I had expected, but there were many performers excerpted and/or interviewed here that I’ve been reminded to listen to again as a result of seeing this film. If Django and Bechet are pretty much your understanding of jazz in Europe, you’ll find this film eye and ear-opening.

 – John Sunier

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