In 2006, during the 6th annual Sound Unseen festival, jazz fans gathered at the Riverview Theater to see “My Name is Albert Ayler,” a documentary about the free-jazz saxophonist who played at Coltrane’s funeral. Afterward, people strolled across the street to the Riverview Wine Bar to talk about the film.
That informal gathering — Janis Lane-Ewart from KFAI, Kevin Barnes from KBEM, musicians Carei Thomas and Joe Damman, among others — planted the seed for KBEM’s REEL Jazz film series.
Succeeding Sound Unseen festivals have featured “Let’s Get Lost,” Bruce Weber’s film about Chet Baker that left many viewers stunned and speechless (turns out Baker was a terrific trumpet player but a horrible human being), and “Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense,” which spotlights jazz stars of today.
Sound Unseen usually shows at least one film about jazz. This year it’s “Charlie Haden: Rambling Boy,” a reverent documentary by Swiss-born filmmaker Reto Caduff.
Bassist (and beyond) Haden is one of jazz’s living legends. Now in his 70s, with a career spanning more than 50 years, he recently released an elegant recording with pianist Keith Jarrett, whose first trio (with drummer Paul Motian) he was part of in the 1970s. (This film brought Haden and Jarrett together for the first time in decades and prompted the new recording.)
Bassist, and beyond: Haden is also a composer, political activist, loving husband and father. The film touches on these areas as well, but it’s mostly about the music. In archival performance clips and recent interviews with other jazz greats, it tells of his country-music childhood, his early obsession with jazz, and his beginnings and maturation as an influential and respected jazz musician.
We learn of his meeting with Ornette Coleman, with whom he would revolutionize jazz, his work with Alice Coltrane, the Keith Jarrett Trio in the 1970s, his politically motivated Liberation Music Orchestra with Carla Bley, his noir-inspired Quartet West, and collaborations with artists around the world. Bruce Hornsby, Pat Metheny, Ethan Iverson, Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano, Jarrett and others are willing interviews, saying nice things about a man who by all accounts is a genuinely nice person.
If anything, Caduff’s film is too reverent, too warm and fuzzy. It makes no mention of Haden’s heroin addiction in the 1960s, or the fact that he suffers from tinnitus, a problem for many musicians. If you’re looking for a film about the dark side of jazz, check out “Let’s Get Lost” or “Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer,” or Clint Eastwood’s “Bird,” about the life of Charlie Parker. But if you want to know more about Haden and his music, this well-made, nicely paced portrait — not too long, not too short, just right at 84 minutes — is a fine way to spend part of your Saturday afternoon.