Escalator Over the Hill was released in 1971 as a three record album. Carla Bley's monumental Jazz Opera, with lyrics by poet Paul Haines, and was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. It was voted Jazz Album of the Year 1972 by a Melody Maker Readers Poll and won the 1973 French Oscar du Disque de Jazz.
This complex and ambitious work took almost 25 years to mount but finally made its world premiere in Cologne, Germany, in June, 1997. The production toured Europe in 1998. The seminal live performance, however, was captured by filmmaker Stephen Gebhardt in 1970-71, when Escalator was originally recorded. During the recording of this work at various locations in New York City, Gebhardt began filming the recording sessions which occurred when the musicians' schedules permitted and when money to pay the recording studio costs was available. Filming thus took nearly a year.
The filming was generally done using one synch camera (although two cameras were used at some sessions) along with an audio tape recorder capturing the output of the mixing console. Gebhardt did all of the work at no cost to the record's producer who only covered the cost of the raw stock and processing and equipment rentals. He filmed the various elements that comprise the composition as well as the conversation before and after the multiple takes needed to obtain the desired sound. These verbal exchanges captured the composer at work in unrehearsed moments where the creative process was in action. These are the basis of this film's unique point of view.
Films that document an artist at work rarely capture that moment as it happens. Many of the performers were at that time living legends of their musical form and included Jack Bruce (but a year after Cream disbanded); Don Cherry (shortly after he and Ornette Coleman ended their collaboration); Don Preston (out of the Mothers of Invention) as well as Roswell Rudd, Gato Barbieri, Charlie Haden, Sheila Jordan (Mahavishnu), John McLaughlin, Howard Johnson, Jeanne Lee and Viva (a Warhol superstar). The cast did this work as a labor of love at scale rather than at their commercial performance rates.
Gebhardt had complete control of what and how he filmed these sessions and thus was able to place the lights and camera in such a manner as to realize the best possible visuals—diametrically opposed to what would have resulted from a live performance shoot. As the various sessions were the composite of earlier sessions, film from one session was cut to or superimposed over others with the net effect of an eight-camera shoot. Had he been able to complete the film immediately after shooting Gebhardt might never have realized the visual potential that video technology offered later on.
Gebhardt chose to shoot with a 16mm reversal film stock that had very natural color replication, high resolution and dense black saturation. This enables superimposition of images without losing definition. Had Gebhardt attempted to achieve this through the film step-printing technology he realizes now that it would have been prohibitively expensive. However, finding the proper balance using video processing makes all of that simple. It is very rare indeed to capture the painstaking process that goes into the creation of an internationally recognized masterpiece but this film, which documents some of the world's most highly-acclaimed musicians at work, manages to do this successfully and entertainingly.
This 83-minute film will give music lovers an illuminating glimpse into
the creative process at work unprecedented opportunity to see how a complex
recording is assembled.