Monday, March 21, 2016

Who’s Crazy? The Ornette Coleman Trio Plays for Escaped Lunatics

As you might expect, the Living Theatre’s regular players had no trouble playing crazy. The company that premiered The Connection was no stranger to jazz soundtracks either. However, this bit of counter-cultural madness had been presumed lost for decades, only to have a copy turn up in the director’s garage. As a result, far more people have heard Ornette Coleman’s soundtrack than have seen the images he scored it to—and that is not exactly a huge subset of jazz fans. Fifty years later, a repaired print of Tom White’s Who’s Crazy (trailer here) finally screens again in New York this weekend at Anthology Film Archives.

Somewhere in Belgium (naturally enough), a busload of insane asylum inmates has escaped and taken refuge in a well-stocked farm house. If you need more narrative than that, Who’s Crazy is probably not your cup of tea. Just as the junkies in The Connection spend their time doing junkie things, the lunatics in Crazy while away the hours with acts of insanity. At one point, they resolve to put one of their less social comrades on trial, but they seem to quickly forget the idea. Eventually, the Keystone Cops will show up, giving additional meaning to the title. It is all trippy and slapsticky, but the real reason to see Who’s Crazy is Ornette Coleman’s richly distinctive soundtrack, recorded with David Izenson on bass and Charles Moffett on drums (his classic Golden Circle trio).

Frankly, some of the music improvised by Coleman’s trio swings surprisingly (and pleasantly) hard. Coleman always was on the more accessible end of the free jazz spectrum, but most of the Who’s Crazy soundtrack is especially easy to relate to. Nonetheless, his power and adventurousness remain unmistakable and readily identifiable. This is just a great Coleman session, like the soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows was a great Miles Davis album. In fact, the Who’s Crazy recording session was documented in Dick Fontaine’s short documentary, David, Moffett, and Ornette: the Ornette Coleman Trio, adding further mystique to White’s rarely seen film with its tantalizing clips.

As a film itself, Who’s Crazy? is very much a product of its time. However, in retrospect, it seems almost like a perfect allegorical microcosm of the 1960s counter-culture. The lunatics clearly look and act unambiguously hippy-like. If White is holding a mirror up to nature, whose reflection do we think we see in the bedlam?

It is a shame Who’s Crazy disappeared for five decades, because it could have easily been programmed for revival runs alongside The Connection and Pull My Daisy. As cinema, it is deliberately ragged and a little silly, but it incorporates Coleman, Izenzon, and Moffett playing with seamless rapport, breathtaking flexibility, and dynamic virtuosity. As if that were not enough, Marianne Faithful performs Coleman’s edgy “Sadness.” Anyone who is fascinated by the relationship between jazz and cinema has to see Who’s Crazy? now that it has finally returned from the land of the lost films. Highly recommended for Ornette fans and patrons of the avant-garde, Who’s Crazy? screens this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (3/25-3/27) at Anthology Film Archives.