Play Your Own Thing is a fascinating look at the history of European jazz and those who became an inseparable part of it. Directed and produced by Julian Benedikt and Ulli Plau this film is more than a summation of dates and archive footage, it is a comprehensive exploration of the culture, tradition, and social background that gave birth to the music many, rightfully or not, classify as jazz.
Structured as a collage of interviews and archival performances by such iconic jazzmen as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ben Webster and Louis Armstrong among others Play Your Own Thing explains how jazz came to Europe, who were the first American musicians to promote it, and how eventually they adjusted to the local music scene. More importantly, the documentary also provides a tremendous overview of the political, social, and cultural landscape that influenced the acceptance of jazz music in Europe - from the locales of Paris and Berlin to the smoky bars of Copenhagen.
The main objective of Play Your Own Thing however is to explain why jazz has become an international phenomenon, what defies it as "American music", where the genre is heading. Careful observations citing the influence of folklore and multiculturalism reveal that jazz has evolved into a refined esperanto where musicians hardly ever imitate each other, they create rather than follow old routes.
One of the more interesting questions Play Your Own Thing asks is where does jazz stop being jazz and become something else, something new. With an array of examples pinpointing precisely how dramatically jazz has spread into countless sub-genres Benedikt makes the case that what many nowadays classify as jazz is simply a different kind of music. But weren't improvisation, innovation, and reinvention the heart and soul of jazz? Isn't jazz synonymous with new?
Whether one accepts or disregards the manner in which contemporary musicians refer to and deconstruct European jazz music, what it is and what it was, is quite frankly a topic of discussion which will always offer more - opinions, reasons, point of views. What does not necessitate debating is the power of jazz to unite people from different countries, even continents; a universal melting pot where everyone contributes and in return benefits from what others have shared.
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and enhanced for widescreen TVs the video quality of this documentary is indeed very good. There is an abundance of archival footage in addition to original content and both look impressive. Obviously the quality here varies depending on the source the distribs have used. With this in mind I truly enjoyed the entire piece and did not have any issues with the presentation whatsoever.
How Does the DVD Sound?
What we have here is different tracks - PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, and DTS. Each and every one of them sounds quite impressive with the archive recordings revealing a great deal of clarity. Once again the original content does not offer any issues of concern and as far as I am concerned everything here is handled with utmost precision. (English subtitles are provided for each interview where different languages are spoken).
Aside from four trailers for other Arte products and a lovely booklet with an essay by Marcus A. Woelfle about the genesis of European jazz and particularly its future there is nothing else to be found here.
To capture the wealth of information and the wide variety of opinions about European jazz in this documentary is practically impossible. In fact, I had a difficult time trying to determine how to summarize what Play Your Own Thing offers. Suffice to say this short review does not aim to explain the points other people make, it only provides a basic clue as to the direction Julian Benedikt aims to follow.