Film reviews

‘Indigo: Revelations In Small Steps’ – documentary about Byron Wallen

Indigo: Revelations In Small Steps – documentary film about Byron Wallen
(Takminister Music Films. 56 minutes. Film review by Liam Noble.)

There are too many lines, and not enough circles, in life. Graphs, timelines, narrative arcs, they’re everywhere. A beginning and an end, with a compelling and dramatic series of ups and downs in between. Is that how real life is?

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Tom Parsons’ evocative study of multi-instrumentalist, bandleader and composer Byron Wallen makes a good argument for experiencing life in circles. Jazz has a kind of continuity about it, cyclic forms that accumulate and mutate as they go. Parsons understands this, and his film has a sense of hovering around a central premise, often repeating itself but with that undercurrent of variation and accrued wisdom that the music itself relies on.

The film chronicles the formation, gestation and of “Indigo”, Wallen’s group with Tony Kofi, Larry Bartley and Tom Skinner. In doing so, however, the chronological passage of time seems to almost disappear, it gets slippery, we go backwards and forwards with no indication of when and where we are. In the opening shot, Byron says “Music essentially is created in the moment”, but the music behind him is from Indigo’s gig at The Crypt – straight away, we are looking at two different chronological points. Was the music created at the beginning of the band’s existence, or later on? Only when we reach the end of the film do we realise that the gig at Ronnies, a “reunion” of the group, is the point towards which everything is heading. And yet even that is in the past. It’s as if it’s still, somewhere, going on, and we, as musicians and listeners, drop in on it.

What is incredible is the sheer range and amount of footage here. There are some incredibly intimate shots, such as the photos and videos documenting Byron Wallen’s work with a group in Rabat, Morocco, and it’s not all music: some of the nicest moments are where he chats to some young kids…despite claiming that communication was often difficult, both musically and linguistically, the footage tells a different story. There’s also some film of him on stage at big gigs, including an excellently bizarre clip of him extending some kind of telescopic brass instrument. And there are some great shots of him playing various instruments: flutes, didgeridoo, the trumpet of course, in a garden somewhere, a vast array of gongs and the like in what might be a garage or a cellar. It’s an incorrigible thirst for musical knowledge, one that is reflected in the kind of depth of research that makes me wonder why I don’t also have a kora in my house.

This all forms a background as to how all this wide ranging experience guides the forming of a new group and its process of working. The fact that their music is often underscoring his descriptions of other influences brilliantly blurs the line between his own work and what he’s heard and studied before, as if we hear one melting into the other in real time.

To be honest, not everyone is a suitable subject for this treatment, but those who know Byron will attest to his charismatic and engaging way of speaking, which finds its perfect complement in the setting of what I assume is his workroom, a chaotic looking sprawl of stuff (“There was so much stuff!” says Tom, later in the film, about Byron’s house… “like a museum.”) It’s like an updated version of the cover to Thelonious Monk’s “Underground”…everything is there, waiting to be picked up, referred to.

The second half of the film is more devoted to Indigo itself, and everyone talks with a refreshing lack of inhibition about how the band worked together. There’s a sense from everyone that they knew the value of what they were doing and, as with many jazz groups, whilst it may not translate to appropriate recognition from the commercial world, still it’s invigorating to see people talking about musical touring life in an actual film. Camaraderie and music go hand in hand, and Tony Kofi’s assertion that “we all had each other’s backs” will ring true with anyone who’s experienced this kind of touring. Larry Bartley talks about their weekly practice sessions together, saying “there’s no way we could do that now”. One of the funniest moments for me was Tom Skinner remembering his introduction to jazz (“I used to read ‘Straight, No Chaser’ magazine”) that is then followed by a photograph of him doing just that, as if even then someone knew it would be needed for a documentary. Again, we don’t quite know where on the timeline these conversations are, but I started to enjoy that, placing both the action and the reminiscences in a kind of eternal present. “Coming back with this band, it feels like I’ve never gone away, the root is so deep” Byron says later.

Talking in split screens, often at the same time, about their lives since Indigo’s formation, music and storytelling seem to fuse, the counterpoint of voices against the music in the background feeling like the culmination of some kind of patient unfolding. Perhaps these are small steps, but they’re taken not with a need for progress, but with an acceptance of process. It left me feeling like I’d listened to, as much as watched, this engaging and intimate portrait.

SCREENiNGS: “Indigo” has just had its UK premiere at the Brecon Jazz Festival, and its European Premiere as an Official Selection at the On Art Dance and Music Film Festival in Warsaw. There are plans for a possible London premiere at the Coronet Cinema in December 2023.

LINKS: Tom Parsons / Takminister YouTube channel

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