Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bluesland Portrait of a Music

A Portrait in American Music 
Masters of American Music

Euro-Arts has reissued on CD the 1993 documentary, Bluesland- A Portrait in American Music, that was part of the American Masters series. A mix of performances (some in short clips), interviews and commentary from pundits Robert Palmer and Albert Murray, this was an exploration of blues music as both a musical idiom and it's transformation as a way of coping with the things in everyday life that give one the blues.  

The mixing of quotes from Willie Dixon and Otis Spann, clips of performances and recordings and the pundits interpretations (and Murray and Palmer have very distinct perspectives). Palmer terms W.C. Handy the father of the blues industry while Murray refers to him as father who helped the music spread and regards it as part of jazz. This perspective can be discerned by their writings on blues as well as their comments here. Palmer deals with the facts of the people playing blues while Murray is more about the allegorical aspects of blues.

The perspective is tied together by a narration from actor Avery Brooks and has bits and performances from Bessie Smith, Lonnie Johnson (great blues ballad from TV) and recordings from Charlie Patton and Louis Armstrong. The classic recording of the latter's West End Blues, precedes Murray distinguishing folk art and fine art in the blues idiom, which leads to minimizing the achievement of the "folk" bluesman. So Basie epitomizes the blues as fine art, as a video of One O'Clock Jump, is shown, but at the same time the Basie Band and vocalist Jimmy Rushing (seen singing) had a definite impact on B.B. King. 

The perspectives of Murray and Palmer have points of agreement as opposed to those of disagreement, both both making cogent observations. Palmer, noting some blues is described as primitive suggests that Mozart, with it's very simple rhythm, might be called primitive, segues into Murray's discussion of African talking drums. Regardless of whether one is more sympathetic to Murray or Palmer, Bluesland, provides an enlightening overview of blues music and it's expression within jazz. It remains fresh and illuminating over a decade and a half after it's initial broadcast. Recommended.

This review originally appeared (I have made minor changes) in the June 2010 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 326). I received my review copy from the publication.

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