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Wednesday, Feb 24 1999
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A History of Jazz Piano on Film
The film clips in A History of Jazz Piano on Film are arranged into four categories: swing, bop, modern, and early piano -- whatever that last one means.

But in the end, the distinctions really mean very little. It's impossible to call it anything, except fun to watch. Imagine being an interloper in a dusty film-archive room with a cheap projector, where reams of history pour out in no particular order: a young McCoy Tyner at the height of his powers in 1963, ripping an extended solo on "Impressions" with John Coltrane's classic quartet. Horace Silver at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival playing a jagged bop solo on "Senor Blues," his body jerking emotionally as he builds and climbs, pushing the other players, and the song, to higher ground. Count Basie's "Basie's Boogie," a romping boogie-woogie number from the grinning cherub of jazz. A late-in-life haunting rendition of "Thelonious" by the High Priest of Bop. Cecil Taylor playing a solo improv piece and, at the uncertain end, the signs of rumination on his face. ("Is this the end?" you can feel him ask himself, and then the look of satisfied conclusion: "Yes, that was the end.")

"You have to view each clip in splendid isolation," says Orrin Keepnews, the famed producer of Monk and Bill Evans who will narrate the archival shots at the showing. "They don't link up to each other in any particular way." Keepnews has spent the last 50 years witnessing jazz's transformations, as well as documenting many of its great performances, including an upcoming 24-CD Duke Ellington retrospective. He keenly understands the nature and dictates of the form.

"Jazz all melds together after a while anyway," says Michael Chertok, the film archivist who put the 90-minute video together from his late father David Chertok's 1,000-piece archive. "A lot of the divisions in jazz were created by jazz writers," he says. "They would set up wars between swing and bop. Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie were supposed to have this feud. And while I do have a film of Armstrong singing a song making fun of bop, I have another film of the two playing together, and it couldn't be more cordial and complimentary."

From a technical standpoint, the clips that are stitched together are sometimes awful in sound and film quality, though some are close to polished and all are good enough to appreciate. Keepnews' improvised introductions follow no real narrative arc, only providing a rough context for the clips. Remember, this isn't a standard documentary. This is jazz we're talking about here. Unrestrained, anti-categorical jazz.

-- George Cothran
A History of Jazz Piano on Film screens as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival's "Swing Into Spring" series on Saturday, Feb. 27, at 8 p.m. at the Masonic Auditorium, 1111 California (at Taylor). Tickets are $10; call 788-7353 for more information.

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George Cothran

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