I’ve written a few lines about Susheel Kurien’s new documentary, but last week, the Beloved and I saw a rough cut of it at DCTV in downtown New York City. I am delighted to be able to write that “FINDING CARLTON: UNCOVERING THE STORY OF JAZZ IN INDIA” is a deeply rewarding film.
Even people who are not terribly interested in jazz in the intricate ways some of us are will also find much to admire in the portraits captured in it. And the jazz-fanciers in the audience sat up, enthralled, throughout it.
The film concentrates on two musicians: guitarist Carlton Kitto, who found himself entranced by the sound of Charlie Christian on the records his mother played at home while she cooked or cleaned — and Louiz Banks, a Grammy-nominated producer and jazz pianist. Carlton takes our attention and never lets it go, both because he swings delicately yet powerfully, and because he is a sweetly endearing character.
Unlike some documentaries I have seen where the story is compelling yet the characters are off-putting, everyone in the audience fell in love with Carlton, his sweet sincerity and his devotion to his music. It did not surprise anyone that when Carlton got pushed on stage when the Ellington orchestra played a concert in India, that Ellington himself warmed to the young guitarist, invited him to sit in, and that Carlton improvised six choruses on SATIN DOLL with the band. I’m only sorry that the Duke wasn’t able to hire Carlton on the spot and take him on tour.
FINDING CARLTON is full of the results of the most fascinating archival research, but it is not simply a film for those people whose heads are full of record labels and matrix numbers. The fruits of that research are vivid onscreen, in the photographs, sounds, colors and textures of the Indian jazz scene from the Twenties onward — with quick but telling portraits of deeply inspiring players including the world-class pianist Teddy Weatherford, the elusive trombonist Herb Flemming. The stories Sushiel has uncovered talk of Larry Coryell and Billy Taylor, of Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, of jamming with Sonny Rollins in an ashram. As well as these famous names, we encounter people and players who go straight to our hearts: the first-rate singer Ruben Rebeiro, the devoted jazz fan Farokh Mehta, singers Pam Crain and Christine Correa — we watch the radiance on Christine’s face when she is able to hear a broadcast of her father’s band for the first time, music she heard as a child but never knew existed.
Kurien has a splendid eye — even though this is his first film — for the little human details that bring both individual characters and a larger world (now, perhaps no longer quite so vibrant) into focus and into our hearts. FINDING CARLTON blossoms with lovely montages of the present and the past, the aural and the visual, the moving and the still. It is respectful but never dull, informative but never preachy or didactic.
I understand that it will have its first formal screening in New York City on November 4, 2011. I urge you to make a small jazz pilgrimage to see it: it is fully realized, lively, and deeply moving. I came away from it with some feelings of loss: one of the later scenes shows Carlton at a gig in a hotel lounge, playing swing for an almost empty room, but I thought of his resilience and that of the music we love.