Friday, May 04, 2007

Tribeca has CHOPS

One of the refreshing things about attending IAJE conferences is seeing and hearing high school students who have a passion for jazz. Those are the sort of young musicians who are performing in Jazz @ Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition this weekend and are featured in Bruce Broder’s documentary CHOPS, screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.

CHOPS started as a film about Broder’s son Owen, an alto and clarinet player, and his jazz band mates from Douglas Anderson School for the Arts, in Jacksonville, FL (DA). What started as an examination of their dedication to jazz grew in scope when their school’s band was accepted by Jazz @ Lincoln Center for Essentially Ellington, dubbed “the Super Bowl” of school jazz band competitions at one point in the film.

The DA jazz band had competed in Essentially Ellington once before, but they were clearly considered underdogs. Eventually, CHOPS introduces viewers to two bands from Seattle, who are perennial rivals in EE, sort of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox of high school jazz bands. However, the DA musicians are the focus of the film, with Broder, drummer Jamison Ross, trombonist T.J. Norris, and trumpeter Jeron “Recio” Fruge taking most of the interview solos. On camera, these young musicians are poised, articulate, witty, and very serious about their music.

Every year J@LC sends out new Ellington transcriptions to high school bands. Those who chose to compete, record three of them, with hopes of performing their selections in New York. Each year, one tune seems to be picked by nearly every band. In 2006 “Idiom 59, Part 2” (part of a suite originally composed for Newport) was the song of the year, seen performed by a string of bands in a montage. Conversely, we only see one rendition of “Rocks in My Bed,” but Isabella DuGraf, the vocalist from Seattle’s Roosevelt High, seems to make quite an impression on the young men from DA.

Anytime a film comes out with a predominantly Ellington soundtrack, its worth seeing. However, CHOPS really captures the passion these students have for the music, which only grows as they go work their way towards New York. There is no question you develop a rooting interest in the DA band as you follow them from band auditions, through their preparations for the competition, to the main event. Watching it makes one optimistic about the future of jazz. All sorts of marketing comparisons could be made for the film: a musical Rocky, Hoop Dreams with a rhythm section, etc.

In fact, the sports comparison is apt. Its producers have a background in sports films, and it has been entered in the Tribeca Film Festival’s sports film division. Certainly, the DA band members practice, travel, and play together like a sports team does. What they do demands mental and physical discipline, and the competition they face is just as serious.

CHOPS has one more screening in conjunction with Tribeca, at 10:30 tomorrow morning, in the Kips Bay AMC. Hopefully, as it makes the festival circuit, CHOPS will land a nice distribution deal, because it really deserves it.