Jack De Johnette @ The Astor Theatre, Perth (26/02/11)

Soundtrack to A Legend was a unique collaboration featuring amazing jazz drummer Jack De Johnette who has played with the likes of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. The description given by the Perth International Arts Festival website left this concert to be a bit of a mystery – we would be watching a documentary about the first African American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson whilst De Johnette and band play the soundtrack. But how it would come together was in the forefront of audience members minds on Saturday Night.

This performance was almost purpose built for the Astor theatre being an old cinema, as it made use of the old screen and new stage. Upstairs and downstairs were well packed out, and by a little after 8pm the band had arrived on-stage. These were some cool jazz men with stamina and musicality, ready to last the distance of the almost 2 hour film playing non-stop throughout. The audience were sweltering though, with a noticeable lack of air conditioning meaning the programs of the night were more useful as fans. But this made the men on-stage seem more impressive, and De Johnette being no spring chicken must be super fit.

Jack Johnson himself was a star of the show as his character shone through the film. He was not just a boxer he was a businessman, a proud black man and a man who loved money, “lots of money”. He was a building of a man, and his massive structure was matched with his deep and resonant voice that made commentary on portions of the film. This was a highlight for those interested in learning of the character of this man who was overtly confident and comfortable in himself, but who undoubtedly came across many obstacles due to his status as a black man. One catchphrase was: “I’m Jack Johnson and I’m black never let me forget it. I’m black and I’ll never let them forget it”. He was a proud man and made many trips home to see his mother. He was a bit of a wheeler and dealer also, unashamedly he wanted to rise to the top. The program for the evening was very informational an

Images of Ku Klux Klan gatherings served to remind of the temperature of the time in America. As Johnson went up to fight against white men who could not compare in neither size nor skill, commentary was made that if his opponent didn’t beat him, he’d lose to a bullet from someone in the crowd. But this did not occur and we saw Johnson move through fights but also trials and tribulations: such as his first wife committing suicide due to the issues relating to being married to a black man – being outcast by both communities; he charged with having prostitutes working in a bar he owned and agreed to throw a fight to be allowed back into the US without serving time but this did not go to plan. Each opponent he went up against commentary was made of them being the “big white hulk”, it was like America was frantically searching for a white man to beat this beast of a black man taking over the boxing arena. What was so curious about this man was how happy he was. He was constantly smiling and as we were introduced to him we learnt that fighting made him happy, he purely enjoyed the sport and snap shots showed him mid swing or grasp with a big grin on his face. The last footage of him as a 60 something fighting an old rival for what appeared to be a charity match showed how much he loved it with both of them grinning from ear to ear as they were grappling in the ring.

Regarding the all round performance, because of the compelling visual nature of the film it was easy to get lost in this and let the music being played live wash through you. But there were moments of realising how brilliantly well the composition and execution was of the soundscape to match the mood of the moment or a particular visual. For example De Johnette playing along to a train chugging along just sounded so realistic to the moment. And the impeccable timing of the band to certain boxing matches to their footwork and each knock and blow being a bang on the drum or blast of a horn. It was a Miles Davis composition executed so well to think the band on stage on Saturday night were improvising and just following the film without fault. It was clever and original, with moods conveyed appropriately but also geography accounted for – Johnson visited Europe and also Cuba when he was avoiding sentencing in the US and the music took on a Latin jazz flavour at this point.

The crowd were pleased and there some obvious De Johnette supporters there who cheered and yelled they’d be seeing him at Becks Music Box on Monday night for his performance there. As the film ended the band did an encore with a still profile shot of Johnson in the background. They played What I Say from Miles Davis’ album Live-Evil, on which De Johnette played. It was a good opportunity for the audience to take in their musical prowess without the distraction of the film. The fact the music blended so well with the film is in no way a negative, it shows the power of the collaboration.

This performance was one that made you sit back and give thanks for events like the Perth International Arts Festival for giving us the opportunity to see such unique and creative works of art. Wouldn’t it be nice if the festival ran the whole year, or even the whole summer to give everyone the opportunity to see more of the amazing things on offer.