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Two New Not-To-Miss Music Docs

Courtesy of Salon's Andrew O'Heir:

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"My Name Is Albert Ayler" Even to aficionados of the 1960s and '70s avant-garde music known as "free jazz," tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler remains an enigmatic figure. Unlike John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and other musicians of the period, Ayler charted his path largely alone. He emerged from the expatriate American jazz scene of Stockholm in 1962 and died in New York in 1970, apparently after jumping into the East River. While he was briefly a well-known figure on the Manhattan nightclub scene, his music was strident and anarchic even by the period's standards, and he never sold many records or made a consistent living. Kasper Collin's film portrays a confident but troubled man, who never doubted that posterity would discover him, and consoled himself that prominent American composer Charles Ives had to work a day job. Nearly 40 years later, Ayler's music remains little-known outside a coterie of admirers, but it remains remarkable that, hampered as he was by poverty, drug problems and probably by mental illness, he accomplished as much as he did. (Now playing at the Anthology Film Archives in New York.)

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"Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037" Luring non-piano-buff viewers to see this "process" documentary about the making of the ultimate high-culture artifact -- the Steinway concert grand piano, with a retail price of roughly $100,000 -- might pose a marketing challenge. I dragged my heels on seeing "Note by Note" myself, but I'm here to report that Ben Niles' picture is a fascinating and delightful thing. If anything, it glorifies the working-class craftsmen at the legendary Steinway factory in Astoria, N.Y. (a district of Queens), as the heirs to a nearly dead 19th-century piano-making tradition, rather than the concert pianists who depend on their work. Mind you, music fans will get plenty for their money here: We hear jazz pianists Kenny Barron, Bill Charlap and Harry Connick Jr. demonstrate what they want in a piano, and observe concert impresarios Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Lang Lang and Hélène Grimaud trying them out, with the critical air you or I might assume while assessing dishwashers at Home Depot. (Lang is hilarious, Aimard comes off like a pompous ass and Grimaud's playing is positively magical.) But "Note by Note" is more than anything a social and cultural portrait, capturing the lonely pride of the 450 Steinway workers who take nearly a year to render raw sheets of timber, piece by piece and step by step, into the most elaborate and precise handcrafted machine made anywhere in the world. (Now playing at Film Forum in New York; other cities may follow.)

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