The People's Liberation Big Band added revolutionary splashes of color and sound to the 1925 black-and-white silent film "The Battleship Potemkin" Friday night at the Pistol Social Club.
In a remarkably creative endeavor, the Kansas City ensemble performed an original score as the classic film was screened for a capacity audience of approximately 200.
Synchronizing a live performance with a film is an extremely tricky proposition. Musicians must simultaneously monitor sheet music, their conductor and the movie screen. The collective's 14 musicians seemed to handle the challenge flawlessly.
Brad Cox, Jeff Harshbarger, Jeffrey Ruckman and P. Alonzo Conway composed a marvelously imaginative soundtrack for Sergei Eisenstein's Russian propaganda film.
At its core, the People's Liberation Big Band is a jazz unit. Accordingly, most of the approach veered between magisterial Ellingtonian swing and expressive free jazz. Many segments also reflected the influence of film composers Ennio Morricone, Lalo Schifrin and Roy Budd.
Wherever possible, the music reflected the action onscreen. When trumpets appeared, for instance, a horn in the Pistol would sound. But Friday's performance was not an exercise in mere mimicry.
The score breathed new life into the film. The famous Odessa Steps sequence was handled with particular effectiveness. A deafening roar was followed by a dirge conveying the devastating sadness of the atrocity depicted. The music's understated dignity was as spectacular as it was surprising. Similarly, a profoundly emotional moment in which a ruthless execution is stymied was enhanced by evocative musical accompaniment. Earlier, a menacing dialogue between percussion and piano added appropriate tension as rancid meat was inspected onscreen.
But the four composers weren't content to merely play along. Their score also serves as a noisy and incisive critique of the film.
A good portion of "The Battleship Potemkin" may seem tedious and repetitive to a contemporary audience. Only the vivid performance of the People's Liberation Big Band propped up an otherwise needlessly prolonged sequence depicting the routine drudgery of sailors.
The Kansas City composers weren't above eliciting cheap laughs. Simulated flatulence drew raucous guffaws from the audience. Comically suggestive scatological flourishes during a scene in which a ship's deck is swabbed and its turrets are cleaned were similarly amusing.
Just as often, however, the decades separating Eisenstein's undeniable brilliance and Friday's live performers evaporated. In these transcendent moments, a sublime combination of score and film made it possible to forget that live musicians were playing original music. The generous acoustics of the bohemian art space in the West Bottoms were a great asset during the 75-minute performance. The English horn, trombone and bowed cello were particularly resonant.
It's almost unthinkable that Friday's remarkable effort might never be repeated. Such an extremely high level of composition and musicianship demands an encore performance. The people deserve no less.
| Bill Brownlee, Special to The Star