Robert Altman’s Jazz 34

Here’s the clip which started it all for me.

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It’s an eight-year old social demo from Dax Hock and Jo Hoffberg (Emily Hoffberg back then), and when I first saw it as a relatively new dancer and DJ, it blew my mind. I loved the track, was mesmerised by the constantly changing rhythms that they were picking out of the music, and just played around with. I absolutely had to find the song, which turned out to be a relatively modern version of King Porter Stomp. It took me a while, I’m ashamed to say, but eventually I tracked it down to an album called KC After Dark, by the Kansas City Band.

Sounds … simple, but it’s not quite what it first seemed – the Kansas City Band was specially put together for Robert Altman’s Kansas City – a 1996 gangster film set in the 30s. Altman grew up in Kansas City, and wanted the music to be authentic to the period – but rather use than the original music from the time, or recreate the original arrangements note-for-note, he opted to put together a band of great 90s jazz musicians, and had them play some of the classic numbers, in a live setting, in the original style, but adding their own voices. KC After Dark is actually a companion disk to the main movie soundtrack: Kansas City. The results are wonderful.

I’ll say this now – if you don’t have these albums, get them. They’re not available digitally, which is a shame – but you can get the CDs from a few places, including Amazon. They are simply amazing, and it’s hard to sit still while I’m listening to them.

Some of my DJing staples come from these albums – most notably King Porter Stomp from KC After Dark, and Blues After Dark from the main soundtrack – I overplay this for blues (if that’s possible) – it’s an incredible raw, sultry and beautiful sax duel between James Carter and Joshua Redman.

And you can see it here.

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This is the part which, eight years on, I’ve only just discovered – although I’m not sure how I managed to stay unaware of it so long.

Robert Altman didn’t just use the music from the Kansas City Band on the Kansas City film. He also made a 76 minute film called Jazz 34, which is nothing more or less than a recreation of a live jam session in a depression-era Kansas City club, with those same musicians playing as, variously, Mary Lou Williams, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Joe Williams, Basie and others, with fifteen of those songs, interspersed with little interludes to give a flavour of Kansas City and its music scene of those times. I can’t get enough of watching this – in fact, this post has probably taken three times longer to write than it should, because I keep stopping to watch more of it. Seeing that music played live, in that setting adds more to it than I can easily describe. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be there while they were filming this.

Now for the bad news – the film has never officially seen a DVD release, and you can only officially get it on 2nd hand VHS recordings. Unofficially it’s a different story, as a short trip to Google should demonstrate. Worth every penny.

On a final note, here’s one more clip – it’s another sax battle, and it’s cool beyond belief. Enjoy!

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