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Texas Tenor: The Illinois Jacquet Story Reviews

TEXAS TENOR: THE ILLINOIS JACQUET STORY, Arthur Elgort's captivating documentary on tenor sax wizard Illinois Jacquet, gives just dues to one of the world's finest musicians. Considering the subject is virtually worshipped by many musical superstars, it's hard to imagine that his name is barely recognizable to the general public. Illinois Jacquet has had a distinguished career that's spanned some fifty years. TEXAS TENOR follows the musician from 1988 through 1991 as the jazz saxophonist and conductor does what he does best--make beautiful music. Jacquet, like other great Southern Black musicians, came north just as soon as he was old enough to buy a train ticket. In his seventies now, he hasn't stopped moving since. In 1988 Jacquet and his newly formed big band are in the midst of a national tour of jazz clubs and larger venues. Jacquet is known as a "Texas Tenor," a term which relates not to where he lives--Jacquet was born in Louisiana--but to the sound which came to be identified by saxophonists in the past who played for big sound. Rooms were rarely miked in the heyday of jazz, and Jacquet liked to play to the back row. Rising to fame in the forties, first as a star player in Lionel Hampton's orchestra, he then cemented his stature as a world class horn player when he joined Count Basie. He achieved his biggest success with the recording of "Flying Home," and many jazz musicians today credit his solo work on that song as the greatest saxophone instrumental ever recorded. His ability to articulate a musical phrase is simply awe-inspiring to fans and fellow performers alike. For the next few decades, Jacquet recorded countless albums and, like many other road veterans, toured continuously. After being named artist in residence at Harvard, he was motivated to form his latest incarnation--"Illinois Jacquet's Big Band." The film follows Jacquet from a cramped backstage at the famous Blue Note jazz club in Manhattan, all the way through Europe on the band's debut tour. Along the way he plays at a variety of music festivals, visits a saxophone production factory, takes a sidewalk stroll around Paris while still finding time to rehearse and perform with a preternaturally talented group of musicians. Arthur Elgort's tribute to a man who can make metal talk is tremendously satisfying to view. Through the clever use of archival footage and interviews with scores of world-class musicians--Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins and Les Paul, to name a few--one is exposed to a superstar in his field, yet barely known outside of the jazz world. TEXAS TENOR: THE ILLINOIS JACQUET STORY should change that. Elgort finds piquant moments in a variety of locales. When Jacquet reminisces with some fellow jazz musicians, aboard a floating junket, the scene is amusingly touching. Shooting in grainy b&w, Elgort also eavesdrops backstage as Jacquet has his hair styled, chronicles an impromptu performance in an instrument repair shop and follows the protagonist as he gives a car tour of his well-manicured neighborhood. Each musical sequence plays one-upmanship on the others, and Elgort captures the melodious sounds with aplomb. While fans stare at Jacquet's riffs with wide-eyed amazement, he merely views himself as a messenger of a music form. Some of the non-musical sequences are entertaining as well. When he and a fellow player shop for hats in an upscale Parisian boutique, they are no longer two accomplished musicians but a couple of kids in an expensive candy store. In a particularly poignant moment, Jacquet confesses to a radio disc jockey that the song "You Left Me All Alone," which he recorded decades earlier, now has new significance since all his fellow jazz musicians are passing away. Dizzy Gillespie is shown shortly before he died. Elgort captures the surrounding characters with brief vignettes. Musicians, fans and friends filter in and out effectively, offering tidbits of information about Jacquet. Gillespie happily notes how Jacquet used to make more money gambling in the tour bus than he did from playing the horn. Jacquet's manager, Carol Scherick, is a constant presence whom Elgort addresses but astutely doesn't over emphasize, although her attendance is an important part of the "on the road" realism. The film is loaded with fine musicians, mostly unfamiliar to mainstream audiences, who give clarity to the history of this musical form and to Jacquet's pivotal position in the business. The man himself, Illinois Jacquet, is low-key off stage, but he comes to life when he picks up the tenor sax. His contemporaries tell of a man who at one time was loud and possibly wild, now he is a classy well-worn giant, and he fits the role well. Jacquet is aware of his elevated stature, yet is humble enough to offer this on his bearing--"I only want to be part of something that will last." The cinematography is superb, making the most of single-camera restrictions. In a stylish prologue, the use of eclectic close-ups and stark lighting set the mood for what is to follow. Sound, which is the hallmark of Jacquet's appeal, is uup to equally high levels. When he plays the solo from his most famous recording, "Flying Home," the technical achievements of light, sound and shot composition are in near perfect harmony. TEXAS TENOR is a treat for music fans or anyone who appreciates true documentary biographies. The camera never gets in the way of the story, and one comes away with a better sense of history as told through wonderful music. Jacquet is representative of many great artists who might not be instantly recognizable, but his genius will now be indelibly etched on celluloid for future generations to admire.