Thursday, July 09, 2015

Japan Cuts ’15: Louis Armstrong Obon (short)

Louis Armstrong was New Orleans to his core, but the first place he truly felt at home was Queens, New York. Japanese traditional hot jazz musicians Yoshio and Keiko Toyama therefore visit both during their annual Armstrong pilgrimages. Joel Schlemowitz follows them as they celebrate the spirit of Satchmo in Louis Armstrong Obon, which screens as part of the Experimental Spotlight: Mono No Aware x [+] (Plus) short film program at this year’s Japan Cuts, the Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

From 1968 to 1973, the Toyamas lived in the Crescent City, becoming mainstays at the storied Preservation Hall. Eventually, they returned to Japan, but they always carried New Orleans jazz in their hearts. In modest detail, they explain how they launched a major Japanese instrument donation initiative after Hurricane Katrina, offering some much desired competition to our friends at the Jazz Foundation of America. However, much to their surprise, they saw grateful New Orleanians reverse the flow of instrument donations in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and Tsunami.

If that does not make you feel all soft and goey about the Toyamas, than bear in mind they also led Japanese fundraising efforts to restore Louis Armstrong’s beloved Queens house and convert it into a world class jazz museum and cultural center. Plus, as musicians, the Toyamas can also get down on what Armstrong called “the gold old good ones,” (Yoshio on trumpet and Keiko on banjo).

Although it screens as part of an experimental film block, Obon is a completely accessible and sweetly touching film. The only aspect falling outside the mainstream is Schlemowitz’s unpolished Super 8mm aesthetic. For a film about jazz, Obon is also a surprisingly quiet film, but that reflects an appropriate level of respect, considering quite a bit of the footage was shot during the Toyamas’ yearly Armstrong grave site visit. Eventually, we do hear Yoshio Toyama cut loose with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks—and he clearly still has the chops.

Even though Obon is only fourteen minutes long and screens amid some radically different shorts, jazz fans will certainly find it rewarding. There is a long and fruitful history of amazing Japanese musicians, like Eri Yamamoto and Shunzo Ohno, taking American jazz and making it their own, but artists like the Toyamas who embrace its traditional roots are not so well documented.Obon helps tell their stories. It is a moving and meditative tribute the musical couple, as well as the giant who continues to inspire them. Highly recommended, Louis Armstrong Obon screens this Sunday (7/12) at the Japan Society, as part of Japan Cuts’ Experimental Spotlight: Mono No Aware x [+] (Plus)shorts block.