Saturday, June 20, 2015

Never Defeated: the Shunzo Ohno Story (short doc)

Shunzo Ohno is like the Timex of jazz, or even its Job. The record shows he took the blows, but still found a way to keep doing his thing. It is an inspiring story of repeated triumph over adversity that Sean Gallagher chronicles in his short but remarkably eventful documentary Never Defeated: the Shunzo Ohno Story, which premiered before Ohno’s Cutting Room gig this past Wednesday in New York.

Hailing from an economically challenged family, Ohno was not given a trumpet until late in his school years, but he quickly made up for lost time. He was one of many international jazz artists who came to America as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He experienced considerable initial success, but Ohno subsequently found himself scuffling to the point of actual homelessness, during what were lean years for real deal jazz in general. Of course, he bounced back personally and professionally, but his greatest trials were yet to come.

Somehow, Ohno survived a serious car accident (that caused the sort of damage to his jaw and teeth that make trumpet players shudder) and fourth stage throat cancer approximately eight years later. In each case, Ohno had to radically reinvent his embouchure to keep playing, which is sort of like a sculptor learning to mold clay with his feet. Yet, Ohno continues to play at a lofty professional level.

Frankly, Never Defeated could easily be expanded to feature length without requiring much padding. Gallagher is a tremendously economical storyteller, shoehorning some epic tribulations into a mere ten minutes. Wisely, he also incorporates plenty of Ohno’s music, including a studio performance with his working group and an all-star ensemble concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring musicians like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Larry Corryell, and Steve Turre.

As an additional attraction for jazz fans, Never Defeated is narrated by Buster Williams, the accomplished bassist who featured Ohno on his Something More album. Williams is a selfless leader. You might hear him give nearly all the solo space to his sidemen at his own gigs, but he always plays with top musicians, so nobody complains. He is always more concerned about serving the music than vice versa, so it makes perfect sense he would sign on to promote awareness and appreciation of his friend and colleague.

Never Defeated is the sort of short doc that deserves a chance to be reincarnated in a larger format. It is tightly constructed and gives the audience a richly flavorful taste of his somewhat Miles-esque music. Ohno next plays at the Bean Runner CafĂ© in Peekskill on 6/27 and as part of the Sunset Jazz concert series in Lyndhurst on 8/13, but the venues are sadly not equipped to screen the film, so hopefully shrewdly programmed festivals like AAIFF will be picking it up in the near future. Recommended for jazz fans and “inspirational” audiences, Never Defeated: the Shunzo Ohno Story is definitely worth keeping an eye out for.