Premium Blend jazz quartet explores 2020’s major topics in ‘38th & Postmodernism’ film

If any year demands to be documented by a film offering thoughtful music and thought-provoking commentary, 2020 is the one.

Jazz quartet Premium Blend, led by tenor saxophone player Jared Thompson, seized its chance to size up the agonizing year by making “38th & Postmodernism” for the 22nd annual Indy Jazz Fest. The coronavirus pandemic made the festival an online event rather than an in-person gathering, and Premium Blend’s film debuted in November as a powerful combination of concert performance, interviews and city scenes.

Available for viewing at YouTube, “38th & Postmodernism” immediately defines itself as a pandemic-era piece when Thompson is seen wearing a face covering while speaking to his band mates during a rehearsal. But 2020’s other towering topic, the call to end police brutality toward Black Americans, serves as the main theme.

“There’s a pandemic. There’s social unrest. And a lot of marginalized communities are deeply affected,” Thompson says in a brief monologue that introduces the 33-minute film. “Everyone Is deeply affected.”

Subtract the music, and the film could stand as a collection of truths shared by an impressive roster of Black artists in the city. Poets Januarie York and Tatjana Rebelle, photographer/music producer Keith “Wildstyle” Paschall and radio host Ebony Chappel are four voices among more than a dozen discussing what’s needed to topple systemic racism.

“Pushing back is the only way to do it,” York says. Chappel says Indianapolis is shedding its image as “a polite society that doesn’t raise hell.”

Does visual artist Rae Parker exaggerate these strides by saying, “We’re having our own Harlem Renaissance here in Indy”?

Perhaps, but also know Thompson and Premium Blend are doing their part.

The quartet, expanded to an octet for the performance recorded at The Cabaret, specializes in building tunes upon sonic mantras in the tradition of John Coltrane. “38th & Postmodernism” opens with the sweet yet mournful riff of “Song for Etheridge.” Flute player Amanda Gardier, a featured guest who arranged the songs performed here, and guitarist Ryan Taylor stake out a recursive pattern suggestive of someone walking circles in a prison cell – precisely the scene depicted in “Cell Song,” the poem by late Indianapolis author Etheridge Knight that inspired Thompson’s composition.

To accompany “Song for Etheridge,” film directors Thompson and Daniel Arthur Jacobson present Indianapolis musicians speaking about discrimination.

Saxophone standout Rob Dixon, artistic director of Indy Jazz Fest, recalls the time New York City police held him at gunpoint when they thought he mugged someone. In reality, Dixon was handing cash to his white girlfriend at a subway stop.

Guitarist Steve Weakley, a member of the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation Hall of Fame, comments, “With the Voting Rights Act, I thought we would be further along.”

More than a half century has passed since that legislation, yet here we are.

Undeniable racism is displayed in “38th and Postmodernism” when filmmakers visit the Indiana Avenue “Black Lives Matter” mural the morning after someone splashed paint to vandalize the artwork. Although it’s a scene that stirs negative feelings, Premium Blend’s music and the mural’s inherent message convey a measure of beauty.

One close-up shows the mural’s depiction of Michael Taylor, an Indianapolis teenager who sustained a fatal gunshot wound while in police custody. Officials said Taylor committed suicide while handcuffed in the back of a squad car. In the mural, Taylor is wearing a shirt adorned with “87” – a number corresponding with the year of his death, 1987.

Other shirts to look for in the film: Thompson’s “8:46,” a reference to the amount of time George Floyd was pinned to the ground under the knee of a white police officer, and guest bass player Brandon Meeks’ message of “Prove Them Wrong.”

It’s difficult to miss anything in this vivid production that delivers compelling overhead views of Premium Blend keyboard player Steven Jones and drummer Brian Yarde at work.

During a rendition of “The Abyss and the Luminescence,” originally recorded for the group’s 2015 debut album, Yarde’s insistent rhythm can be interpreted as creativity taking shape. Guitarist Taylor picks up the idea by playing detached, syncopated notes before giving way to Jones, who builds a major- and minor-key vocabulary across his keys. Finally, Thompson unloads an expressive and fearless solo to signify the fruition of the work.

Listeners can stream and/or purchase an expanded music-only version of “38th & Postmodernism” that arrived online in January.

The concert closes with “In the ’Lac,” a joyful romp tailored for riding through neighborhoods in a Cadillac. The film excels at Indianapolis scenery, but the car is left to your imagination.

Earlier in the film, an unheralded Indianapolis mural that’s been around since 1993 is lovingly showcased. Douglass Park, 1616 E. 25th St., is home to a mural commemorating abolitionist Frederick Douglass. A highlight of 2021’s Black History Month is a proposal to spend $20 million to improve this park.

On the topic of landmarks, the “38th & Postmodernism” title is a play on the busy Eastside intersection of 38th Street and Post Road.

What does the term “postmodernism” bring to the mix? It’s a question of what’s next. Is it time to deconstruct? Build up?

In the words of rapper Jeremiah Stokes, “There isn’t a ‘normal’ to go back to.”

Fellow rapper Pernell from Pike (formerly known as Theon Lee) sums up “38th & Postmodernism” as a rallying cry for creative people eager to make a difference in Indianapolis.

“My art is my contribution,” Pernell says. “You either build or destroy. If you don’t want to show up and destroy the system, then go find something to build.”

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