Syncretic Sounds: Tim Haldeman's "Jazz + Film" blends art forms
When the Tim Haldeman Quartet assembles at Hathaway’s Hideaway in Ann Arbor on Sunday, March 11, to play improvised jazz while films are screened, the musicians will continue a tradition that is most associated with a pioneering soundtrack by trumpeter Miles Davis.
At the end of November 1957, Davis flew to France to begin a monthlong series of concerts, including a three-week stint at Club Saint-Germain in Paris.
But the trumpeter didn't bring the musicians who comprised his first great quintet.
Davis had fired tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and drummer Philly Joe Jones at the end of March 1957 due to their drug problems, and he also was restless and looking for new challenges, which included making Miles Ahead, his first album with composer-arranger Gil Evans.
In Paris, Davis recruited French musicians Barney Wilen (tenor sax), René Urtreger (piano), and Pierre Michelot (bass), along with American ex-pat and early bebop innovator Kenny Clarke (drums). A few days after the band's debut performance on Nov. 30, 1957, at the Olympia Theatre, Davis brought the band into a recording studio on Dec. 4.
Jean-Paul Rappeneau, an assistant to Louis Malle, suggested to his boss that they invite Davis to do the soundtrack for the director's new film, Ascenseur pour l'échafaud. After seeing the movie in a private screening, Davis agreed to do the soundtrack, but he didn't write any music. Outside of a few harmonic frameworks Davis jotted down at his hotel, the quintet improvised the entire score to Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, playing to loops of the film that needed music.
Saxophonist and Ann Arbor native Haldeman says he hasn't seen Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, but he does have a more contemporary story about an influential encounter he had with film and improvisation.
"I once saw the great band Tortoise perform along with the film Nosferatu, which was very inspiring," Haldeman says. "Also, one of the multi-instrumentalists in that group, Jeff Parker, used to have a weekly gig in Chicago, where he and his trio would improvise while a video/projection artist experimented with visuals on a screen behind them. Those nights were incredible, very memorable, and I learned a lot about how effective that combination can be."
This is the second year Haldeman has helmed the jazz-and-film project, which is a partnership between the A2 Jazz Fest (Sept. 29, 2018) and Ann Arbor Film Festival (March 20-25, 2018). The saxophonist was asked by bassist and A2 Jazz Fest organizer Dave Sharp to play with "short avant-garde films from the '20s and '30s," Haldeman says, which included Rhythmus 21 by Hans Richter, Brumes d'Autumne by Dimitri Kirsanoff, and H20 by Ralph Steiner.
Haldeman will be joined by Sharp on bass and synth, Dan Bennett on saxophone, and Jesse Kramer on drums, and this year's film selections include Les Mystéres du Château du Dé by Man Ray, Regen by Mannus Franken and Joris Ivens, and Ballet Mécanique by Fernand Léger.
"I'm organizing them into two separate sets," Haldeman says. "We've tried to pick films that don't necessarily tell a clear story visually so that we as musicians will have room to spontaneously shape something new in the moment, hopefully creating new angles and interpretations."
Like Miles Davis and his band, Haldeman and Co. will mostly be winging it with some frameworks.
"There is some written material that we'll draw from, but most of it is improvised," he says. "However, many of the 'improvised' sections begin with a specific concept or set of parameters that we try to stick with. One of the fun challenges of this process is leaving things open and not overplanning. We're not 'scoring' these films; it's something else. We want the possibility of that unpredictable magic, without straying so far that we're ignoring the visual content."
Another project Haldeman debuted at last year's A2 Jazz Fest was Open Water, As a Child, a long-form tone poem dedicated to the people affected by the Flint water crisis. Jordan Schug (cello), Ben Willis (bass), Jon Taylor (drums), Dan Bennett (tenor saxophone and percussion), Justin Walter (trumpet and percussion), John Goode (spoken word), and Haldeman (tenor saxophone and percussion) performed the piece, which was never to be repeated. Except it went so well, Haldeman reconsidered.
"I hadn't planned on recording the Open Water As a Child suite, but I was so inspired by how all the guys played it, and what John Goode wrote was so moving, that I changed my mind," he says. "We recorded it a few months ago, and I hope to release it this summer."
That means the album will likely be out before the next A2 Jazz Fest and after Haldeman travels to Paris in April with Mike Reed's Flesh and Bone for a collaboration with the Orchestre National de Jazz.
Like Miles Davis, perhaps Haldeman will be asked to improvise a film soundtrack while he's there.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
Tim Haldeman's "Jazz + Film" is at Hathaway’s Hideaway, 310 S. Ashley St., Ann Arbor, on March 11 at 6 pm. The event is free. Visit a2jazzfest.com and aafilmfest.org for more information on upcoming events. For a 15% discount on Film Fest tickets, enter the code AAFF56_AADL when you purchase passes here.