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50 YEARS

Francis Wolff: Jazz Images (Elemental)

A review of a photography book by the Blue Note co-founder

Francis Wolff, Jazz Images
The cover of Jazz Images by Francis Wolff

There are times I have watched the artful dissolves in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and wished there was a way to hang them on museum walls as paintings in motion. Jazz can have a similar effect in that the notes of the music virtually coruscate the air, lighting it up as we listen: the glorious strobe of rhythm.

With this book of Francis Wolff photographs, those waves of sound are all but detectable to the naked eye, the seeing soul. Wolff, of course, famously co-founded Blue Note with Alfred Lion and was the amateur shutterbug—turned Walker Evans-level virtuoso—of the partnership.

He had a gift for being present to make others look exceedingly present, without detecting his presence. As with his photograph here of Clifford Brown blowing a note on Art Blakey’s A Night at Birdland session from 1954 with eyes closed, lips pursed—even focused, you could say—while hitting a lick on which much must have been vested. Trumpet descends diagonally left to right, an edifice of classy jacket extending vertically in balance, Brown’s expressive face the top of this most potent of jazz triangulations. We feel the power of the geometrical form. We see no one else in the band, but we intuit how in synch this player must be with them, and, consequently, the rest of the players with each other.

Most of these shots are loving bestowed their own individual pages. We see Kenny Drew leading a trio session in 1953 with one hand pressing some keys, Drew’s gaze looking camera-ward, but not strictly at the camera, as if espying a new idea hanging in the air, thus blotting out immediate surroundings. We lose ourselves in jazz as listeners—well, lose ourselves to find ourselves—but we often don’t think about how the musicians do the same thing, something Wolff is always cognizant of.

A Bobby Hutcherson photo from a rejected Grant Green session in 1964 riffs on Rodin’s The Thinker. He’s poised over his vibes, crossed mallets in one hand, clenched fist (with thumb extended) supporting chin. Picasso would talk about the rhymes in paintings, how one part—say, a crossbeam at the top—will play off the tapered edge of a vase of flowers. The emphasis on sound is key; the best visual artists have always built in a kind of sound, just as the best poets build in a form of painting.

Wolff’s photography straddles the mediums, part music, part cinematic freeze-framing, part imagistic dance, an extemporization of painting in black and white with sharp definition—almost like film noir, but with the lights turned back on. Faces register dossiers of thoughts, like an unboxing of vital documents we can both read and not read. I think I know what Sonny Stitt might be saying at a 1962 session, his face cast in light, finger beginning to extend in a pointing gesture, but I’m also not totally certain. “Then you come in here,” he might be advising. “You want me to follow you?”

The joy throughout many of these sessions is often depicted in studiousness. People laugh in Wolff’s photos, but rarely does any musician not look dead-centered on a task—a task of discovery, as I think of it, of nailing what needs to be nailed and the artistic freedom that springs therefrom. Everyone you like is here, all of the major players, all of those Blue Noters we all love who maybe didn’t get the billing they deserved—or haven’t yet—but I most often return to Wolff’s photo of Hank Mobley at his Soul Station session in 1960.

A cropped version became the cover photo, but man, you need to see the unexpurgated delight. Mobley looks exhausted, satiated, an artist who has spent his talents wisely and given every last drop of what he had to give. His right arm is bent back, tenor sax held nearly upside down, the bell parallel with his ear. He looks like he’s about to give the thing a weary, happy pump or two, like it’s a hard-won chalice, the jazz Stanley Cup. Very few people know the best kind of spent like an artist does. But listeners have their versions too, and readers, and, of course, partakers of these Francis Wolff photographs. The sweep of rhyme.

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Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature—for a wide range of publications. He also talks regularly on the radio for the likes of NPR and Downtown with Rich Kimball. His most recent book, Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls (Tailwinds), was published in 2019, with an entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club to follow in 2020. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com (where you’ll also find his unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.