Given the losses it’s endured over the past year, New Orleans music could use a smart, well-crafted love letter. It gets one in Between the Notes, a half-hour documentary short by local filmmakers Bruce Dear and Travis Henry, now viewable on Amazon Prime. But no matter how many local music docs you’ve seen, this one is a little different.
For one thing, it’s not the kind of music film that hauls out the usual famous suspects: The interviewees go across genres and personality types; they include classical cellist Monica McIntyre; jazz trumpeter Leroy Jones and trombonist Katja Toivola; dancer Jeff Schechter; poet Chuck Perkins and from the rock/roots world, a pair of Tin Men (Alex McMurray and Washboard Chaz). For another, the film isn’t concerned with tracing the history of local music; instead it goes into the spiritual nature of music (the word “sacred” is used more than once) and the musicians’ thoughts about what they do. Those thoughts are what hold all the interviewees together: though their music may be worlds apart, they’re all equally reverent about the presence of the muse.
The film premiered last year at the New Orleans Film Festival which led to its worldwide distribution. According to the press release, the filmmakers “are two friends that came together with a question: Where does music come from on the individual and personal level and how might that origin influence tradition?”
One subtle but important point the film makes is that music is music and there are no divisions between pop and high culture. Thus nobody who’s interviewed had the roots you might expect. Now a big name in traditional jazz, Jones says he grew up on James Brown and “used to mash the potatoes with the best of them.” McMurray was first introduced to songwriting by his sister’s collection of show tunes (she was apparently big on Evita) and Schlechter’s role model as a dancer was John Travolta. Only Perkins’ interview attests to the influence of growing up in New Orleans; he remembers absorbing “Hey Pocky Way” from school-bus singalongs instead of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
Though there are some beautifully shot scenes of Bourbon, Frenchmen and the river, nothing in the movie’s points are really specific to New Orleans (and it may be the first local music film I’ve seen that doesn’t focus on Mardi Gras Indians, though there are a couple of parade scenes). And its best moments come when the music does the talking. Jones plays an eloquent solo in his own kitchen, and the scene of percussionist Michael Skinkus explaining his choice of the boxlike cajon as his main instrument—and then playing it at dusk in City Park and getting absolutely transported—says more about the majesty of music than any words could.