Robert Altman’s Jazz ’34

Produced, directed by Robert Altman. Narrator: Harry Belafonte.

Produced, directed by Robert Altman. Narrator: Harry Belafonte.

With: Jesse Davis, David Newman, Ron Carter, Christian McBride, Tyrone Clarke , Don Byron, Russell Malone, Mark Whitfield, Victor Lewis, Geri Allen, Cyrus Chestnut, James Carter, Craig Handy, David Murray, Joshua Redman, Curtis Fowlkes , Clark Gayton, Olu Dara, Nicholas Payton, James Zollar, Kevin Mahogany.

Foot-tappingly sublime, drenched in vintage atmosphere and tantalizingly brief, “Jazz ’34” captures 21 period-garbed contemporary musicians playing their swinging hearts out on the evocative Hey Hey Club set re-created for Robert Altman’s fiction feature “Kansas City.” Exhilarating pic will be shown on PBS’ “Great Performances” in January, and a 72-minute theatrical version, which incorporates three more songs and an additional tenor sax “cutting contest” between James Carter and Joshua Redman, is still at the lab,. Shorter version preemed at Deauville prior to a Venice showing.

A sort of Olympics of jazz musicians summoned for Altman’s ode to the hopping city of his youth, pic provides extended versions of many of the instrumental interludes seen and heard in “Kansas City.” Movie tells us repeatedly that Kansas City was the place to be in 1934 and, judging from the 12 magnificent musical numbers brought to life here in their sparkling entirety, no one with ears could doubt it.

Kicked off by Harry Belafonte’s scene-setting offscreen narration and shots of the exquisitely restored “18th and Vine” neighborhood that once boasted the greatest concentration of nightspots in America, pic subtly sketches the cycle of one very long night of very good music.

The expert give-and-take among musicians is inspired, as is the unobtrusive yet probing camerawork. Lensing and cutting perfectly support the performances, whether reverent and melancholy or boisterous and bursting with bravado. Helmer used three 35mm cameras, edited on tape and struck the present print from a tape-to-film transfer. Due to the occasional barely glimpsed smeared or skipped frame, result is slightly “off” in a way that only enhances the dreamy, intoxicating atmosphere.

Sound quality is rich and distinct. Musicians are obviously not only thrilled to be challenging their colleagues to ever greater heights but are also willing conspirators in the act of impersonating their talented forebears. Period dress, including high-waisted trousers, suspenders, vests, ties and, especially, felt hats worn indoors, reinforces the vintage feel.

As in “Kansas City” itself, one of the indisputable highlights here is the dueling duet between the faux Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, which was witnessed by Kansas City native Charlie Parker, then age 14.

Belafonte’s narration is augmented between numbers by different voices offering testimony. One voice contends there was so much music, literally around the clock, that people waiting for the streetcar would wander in to listen to a set in progress and forget to go to work.

Captivating in its portrait of casual excellence, pic effortlessly evokes a tone of privileged intimacy.

Robert Altman’s Jazz ’34

  • Production: REMEMBRANCES OF KANSAS CITY SWING A Sandcastle 5/Ciby 2000 co-production. (International sales: Ciby Sales, London.) Co-producers, James McLindon, Matthew Seig, Brent Carpenter.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Oliver Stapleton; editors, Brent Carpenter, Dylan Tichenor; music producer, Hal Wilner; music engineer (Dolby surround) Eric Liljestrad; production design, Stephen Altman. Reviewed at Deauville Festival of American Cinema (noncompeting), France, Sept. 4, 1996. (Also in Venice fest.) Running time: 57 MIN.
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