Brazilian photographer and jazz aficionado Jefferson Mello connects the New World’s two most lasting musical genres via their African roots in the enjoyable, upbeat “Samba & Jazz.” Shuttling between New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro, the novice helmer interviews a host of musicians who speak with passion and intelligence about the vital role music plays in their communities. Black-and-white and color switch off (not always for discernible reasons) in this ebullient celebration with serious grace notes, including the effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans’ traditions. Smallscreen play is sure to follow fest showcases.
Mello, author of the book “The Paths of Jazz,” clearly adores his subjects, some of whom, such as trumpeter Gregg Stafford, he’s known for decades. His zeal occasionally falls victim to repetition and a certain lack of focus, making him lose sight of a sustained ethnomusicological approach, yet his enthusiasm is infectious, and the joy of the performers pushes aside most quibbles.
Perhaps because he’s Brazilian and wants to favor “the other side,” Mello gives more screen time to jazz than to samba, and his love for New Orleans is unabashed. With the help of talking heads, the documentary traces rhythms back to the 19th century and the tenacity of African percussion, which found new homes in the slave districts of Rio’s Gamboa neighborhood and New Orleans’ Congo Square. Jazz and samba cultures are linked not just by the beats — which cry out for greater exploration here — but rituals such as processions, the tradition of putting on finery, and parallels between jazz funerals and Rio’s “gurufim,” or samba sendoffs.
In the Big Easy, Mello interviews members of the Young Men’s Olympian Junior Benevolent Assn., tracing intergenerational ties and the vital position music holds in bringing the community together. They’re a small-scale version, the film argues, of Rio’s samba schools, bigger-budgeted organizations with an equally crucial function in giving the city’s poorer districts a sense of cohesion. The docu never proves that there’s a common ancestor in the two types of societies, though certainly there are enough similarities, despite the difference in size, to provoke informed speculation.
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Hurricane Katrina’s inclusion is both necessary and slightly frustrating in this context, since Mello understands the horrific storm’s tragic role in breaking apart communities, yet can’t quite organically graft it onto his docu’s main theme. Still, the importance of music, and of the Benevolent Assn. in holding together neighborhoods and ensuring a sense of continuity with traditions dating back at least a century, in some ways proves the director’s argument that jazz — specifically New Orleans jazz – is more than simply a musical form, but rather a culture.
At first it appears that only interviews are in monochrome, but then other scenes are also lensed the same way, making it difficult to identify a rationale. Even so, the black-and-white is never less than handsome, crisp without being too sharp. Editing is also top-notch.