“Yes, you’re recreating something,” says Jim Fryer, a trombonist in Vince Giordano’s fiery throwback jazz orchestra the Nighthawks. “But you’re trying to recreate something so vividly that it’s alive now.” Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards’ doc Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past showcases both the recreations — persuasive revivals of tunes and arrangements and solos from the 1920s and ’30 — and the great present-tense effort it takes to pull them off. Besides playing his bass, his tuba and his joyously flatulent bass sax, bandleader Giordano tracks down vintage arrangements from the days of Fletcher Henderson and Paul Whiteman, handles bookings and all the stage-patter, checks that all his Nighthawks and their instruments have gotten onto the bus and never seems without something to schlep. Your heart may break when, thanks to some miscommunication between a venue and the talent, Giordano has to break down his band’s setup before he’s finished hauling it to the stage — another act is going on first. The past weighs heavily and literally.
Sadder still was when the band lost its Monday/Tuesday night residency at Sofia’s in Manhattan after the restaurant and theater lost its lease. Giordano and his band members attest in the film to how regular gigs, even for small crowds, are invaluable to their sharpness. Early on, There’s a Future in the Past cuts between frustrating engagements for Giordano’s A and B bands, his top Nighthawks and his subs/sides: At Sofia’s, Nighthawks toodle winningly through their repertoire for what looks like a dozen people; meanwhile, at an outdoor soirée at Lincoln Center, Giordano’s main band swings through a rainstorm even after the dance floor has been closed. But it’s not all hardship: Giordano’s crew also gets to guest on A Prairie Home Companion and cut vintage tracks for Boardwalk Empire. When the Nighthawks find a new perch at Iguana, on West 54th, their first show is welcomed by a sizable and enthusiastic audience.
Curiously, 15 years on from the battles over Ken Burns’ Jazz, and two decades into Wynton Marsalis’ reign at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the film never considers the question of the value of such painstaking recreations, of what it means to master the improvised solos of almost a century ago. Some of Giordano’s Nighthawks look uncomfortable before their debut at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2012, as for all their raucous zeal they’re not playing improvised music. Perhaps time has sanded the sharpest edges off many jazz fans’ concerns about the conflict between preservationists and forward-thinking artists. When the Nighthawks light into an arrangement, they’re not aping a record you could spin or download at home — they’re attempting to discover what it might have been like to hear those bands of back then blowing the doors off a joint. Is that possible? Who knows — but does it hurt to try?
Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past
Directed by Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards
First Run Features
Opens January 13, Cinema Village