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Free jazz explored on film

Inside Out in the Open
Guild Theatre
Southwest Ninth and Taylor
Tonight 7 p.m.
Saturday 4 p.m.
$6.50 general
$5.50 students w/ID

First-time director and former postman Alan Roth’s new documentary “Inside Out in the Open,” making its West Coast premier tonight during the Northwest Film Center’s Reel Music Film Festival, explores the boundless world of free jazz.

The film opens by positing a question. “What is sound?” a faceless narrator asks, and in the world of free jazz, no question is more apt. Starting in the early 1960s, free jazz musicians looked to make the break from the formal constraints of traditional jazz music, moving in a more experimental direction. Roth’s film documents the genre’s beginnings and explores the mindset of its artists.

The genre, also known as free improvisation, has always had its share of detractors. While its champions laud the break from standards of old, it is just those standards that nay-sayers see as the jazz’s backbone.

Jazz musicians live for improvisation though, and free jazz players take improv to new heights. The solo for them often begins at the point of departure. And in free jazz, none of the old rules – concerning solo order, rhythm, harmonics, etc. – apply. The 12-bar blues no longer exists for these folks.

One of the challenges Roth faces is how to make a film that reflects the music’s enthusiasm. This begins at the very start, with the opening question, and continues when the film is edited so that musician’s statements on common themes come one after the other. These moments are akin to those most cherished in free improvisation: the moment in a frenzy of disjointed wailing when the players’ various sounds meet – place where the ad hoc catharsis occurs.

Roth refrains from narrating his film, another deft touch-it retains an improvised feel. To narrate the documentary would be to impose structure upon a film about a music that challenges every notion of structure. Most often associated with such abstract expressionism, poetry, Marxism and the Black Power movement, free jazz is about freeing the soul. The musicians rarely, if ever, work from written compositions, every time they perform a new work is created. Hence the title of the film – the musicians’ insides are out in the open for the audience to hear.

Aging alto sax player Marion Brown says the goal is “to change the system based on sound.” He is referring to both the “system” inherent in American society, as well as the systemic nature of the jazz world itself.

“Inside Out in The Open” features contemporary performances by John Tchicai and In Order To Survive and more, as well as classic footage by the likes of Sun Ra and his Arkestra. Featured music includes selections Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, the N.Y. Art Ensemble and the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble. Roth evokes insights from musicians such as Marion Brown, Roswell Rudd, Alan Silva, Joseph Jarman and Baikida Carroll that both fans and non-fans alike will find intriguing.

Roth will be on hand at the Guild both tonight and Saturday, so come ready with questions.