Music

David S. Ware/Cooper-Moore/William Parker/Muhammad Ali: Planetary Unknown

These four guys have known each other for years, yet this is the first album to feature all of them in the same room. Calling it a "doozy" is just a playful, feeble understatement.


David S. Ware/Cooper-Moore/William Parker/Muhammad Ali

Planetary Unknown

Label: AUM Fidelity
US Release Date: 2011-06-14
UK Release Date: 2011-06-27
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Artist website
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To call Planetary Unknown a "new" band is a little misleading. This album is the first made by David S. Ware together with Cooper-Moore, William Parker and Muhammad Ali all at one time, yes. But the shared history of collaborations and session support between these four jazz elders goes all the way back to the Nixon administration. In a loose sense, Planetary Unknown has always been around. But now they're...you know...together.

Planetary Unknown is largely getting credited as a David S. Ware project, but that seems to be more for marketing convenience than anything else. Between Ware, Cooper-Moore, Parker and Ali, it's not crystal clear who is steering the pack. It makes sense that Ware, as the saxophonist, would take many of the leads. But pianist Cooper-Moore creates a great deal of shading that doesn't need to take its cues from the solo flights Ware is providing. Bassist William Parker and drummer Muhammad Ali seem to be bouncing off one another, so they aren't the captains of the ship, either. But that's the way things operate when you have four hardened veterans playing music that is 100 percent made-up on the spot.

If you heard Ware's Onecept from last year, you already know that he and Parker have plunged into these deep waters together before. Onecept was totally unscripted, spontaneous. It took you up, down and all around with very few signposts along the way acquainting you with a form. Planetary Unknown is the same story only now there is a piano (and Ali instead of Warren Smith on drums). It presents the same challenges, but maybe in an even wider chasm. Because, let's face it: free jazz may never receive the wide acceptance its fans think it may deserve.

Cooper-Moore's piano style is daunting, even for this album. Being the one instrument capable of playing chords in the traditional sense, you would think that the piano would be more of a harmonic anchor for Planetary Unknown. This silly idea gets pulverized by Cooper-Moore, channeling Cecil Taylor doing an impersonation of a spider weaving a web while on speed. All the while, Ware's sax is relentless. One would never guess he recently underwent a kidney transplant after hearing him roll and flutter a note in the dirt for a good 10 bars. The opening track, "Passage Wudang", sharply darts through what feels like a prolonged climax, lasting over 20 minutes. This is why free jazz is so exhausting to its detractors. They feel like the way the planet looks on the front and the back of the digipak: ravaged by sun, wind and rain. And what should change up the pace? A gut-busting drum solo from Ali.

Cooper-Moore and William Parker sit out for one track, the oddly titled "Duality is One". But on a certain level, it's not a stretch to say that a duet between Ware and Ali reaches a point of "oneness". In fact, it happens pretty early on with Whack. Here, both men land on an emphasis together with no preamble, which is impressive considering how free jazz often revels in an elastic meter, one that can drive your toes crazy. So how did Ware and Ali accomplish that? If following the veterans of old school post-bop and free jazz has taught me anything, it's that a sense of telepathy comes with duking it out together for years and years. Not just shifting dynamics or ending a song together, but a telepathy that runs deeper and can't be accurately described. Only witnessed. Planetary Unknown, at the very least, is a display. And a hard won one at that.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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