When Duke researcher Sam Stephenson stumbled upon a trove of performances, conversations and photos captured by the eccentric photographer W. Eugene Smith between 1957 and 1965 in New York City, it's unlikely he imagined what the next decade would bring. Sure, those reels of tape and stacks of photographs carried the voices and visages of many of jazz's best names—Thelonious Monk, Alice Coltrane, Albert Ayler—and a horde of its forgotten players, but what could become of such ephemera?
In the past three years, the archive, since dubbed The Jazz Loft Project, has been the wellspring of a touring art show that opened in Manhattan in February; a thick book choked with photos and prose, explaining Smith and the scene he captured; and a series of concerts presented by Duke Performances that explored the legacy of Monk, a native North Carolina son and one of the jazz loft's giants.
In My Mind, a 97-minute documentary premiering at Full Frame on Friday, is the latest addition to the Jazz Loft multimedia stream, and, again, it's dedicated to Monk. Youthful, innovative New York pianist Jason Moran pays tribute to the legacy and vitality of Monk with a concert at Manhattan's Town Hall, where Monk debuted his big band in 1958. Moran's show is a challenging, often-liminal project, pushing the Monk songbook to new places through a series of ambitious choices—Moran plays along to a loop of Monk tap-dancing; he forces his band to carry a tune into the venerable venue's lobby; he selects video backdrops that relate Moran and Monk in impressions and implications. When Moran—articulate and collected, with a demeanor that suggests both a father and a cool college professor—explains his choices and his admiration for the best teacher he never met, the film does more than capture a concert. Rather, it investigates why we make idols and how we interpret them.
Eliding a traditional narrative form, In My Mind instead adopts Monk's structural propensities—simple, repeated themes divided by exploratory tangents that are manifested here by the incredible performances of Moran and his band—to tell its elliptical tale. Don't go for revelatory insight into Monk; In My Mind doesn't deliver. Do go for brilliant music, vividly captured and assembled by director Gary Hawkins and producer Emily Ladue, in troves.