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zingmagazine10 autumn 1999

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reviews
lee friedlander-american musicians: dap

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Coltraine, photographed by Lee Friedlander

 

To paraphrase Eric Dolphy, once music is played, it’s gone forever. There are no real second chances to catch a note, or a phrase, or a dynamic, especially when the music has to do with improvisation. Mr Dolphy was, in part, speaking as an instrumentalist whose compositions and performances are colored and weighted by improvisation; as such, the criteria for things like a “repeat performance,”as one might expect in the theater, do not apply. Were we to document a given evening, say, a night at the now-defunct Five Spot, that performance would be, in almost every way, a unique conjunction of situations and timings which, in the end, determine the effect of the concert. Thus, in music like jazz, along with most other trans-African musics and selected other world musics, once music is played, it is no longer available in the same way that we think about Western classical music as being available.
And then there are the exceptions. The chances when music—or maybe not music but rather the same situations and ideas and expressions which might have been available in performance—is captured in the space of a moment. When the introspection, or exuberance, the overall emotional content of a given moment is both held and released, and there is a tapping into the same field which provided the musicians with the inspiration, identity, and constructive creativity. In this case, there is a notable chance to sidestep Mr Dolphy’s pronouncement, for we are dealing not with a recording in sound, but an image in light.
The photographs of Lee Friedlander, who must have been as close to a fly on the wall as there has been in the arena of American music, produce a stunning visual document in American Musicians (DAP). Although jazz musicians are a strong part of the work—indeed, some of the most fascinating and dramatical portraits are of artists like John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Gerry Mulligan—the book stands on equally strong ground in its images of American masters of the blues and gospel traditions, as well as pop vocalists and those masters of America’s other “jazz”, country music.
Familiar figures provide an historical and powerfully dynamic journey through America’s music history in the years since 1950. A young Don Cherry, trumpeter and cornetist, longtime Ornette Coleman collaborator, is depicted in black and white with style and understated energy during an off moment; pages later, the complete Ornette Coleman quartet is pictured in color in a moment of rare beauty. Early pages feature Mississippi Fred McDowell in situ against a wood rail fence in some country yard, while Friedlander’s street photographs depict nameless but ecstatic street corner ensembles in full swing.
His sympathetic portraits of some of country music’s innovators, including the original man in black, Johnny Cash, are as striking in their composition as in their subject matter. Fashion, style, vision are all captured as part of Friedlander’s efforts to illustrate not only an individual personality, but a larger historical-musical context as well. To this end, the book includes an interview with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, whose work on the instrument was to catch the attention of John Coltrane and spark a creative fire there, conducted by Friedlander and his wife. Lacy, who grew up in New York playing in dixieland bands, and went on to play with Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor, is, in some ways an epigram for the work: crossing cultural, historical, and racial boundaries, he provides a link to an older history inside the music. In this sense, what is perhaps most dramatic is the universality of these images—in presenting music which, culturally speaking, occupied two (or, in some cases, three or four) separate worlds, Friedlander manages, like any perspicacious artist, to construct a complete image from a series of segments.
But, lest we stray too far from the source of all this, American Musicians is, like all good photography, an appeal to the visual. It is a treat to see these images, whether one is aware of the historical significance of the works or not, simply because they so inescapably capture an energy and immediacy. It is this power which is reflective of the human element, of the split between performer and artist. Friedlander engages a combination of history and nostalgia, creating as much a history of recent music as a series of photographs; he seems nowhere more eminently in his element than he is among his subjects in this book.

Brian Glick

New York, New York

1999