Call + Response: Last Signs of June

Composer: Idit Shner + Filmmaker: Deejuliano Scott
Idit Shner performing with Ratie D and band.

Inspiration in the Pause

by Kristin Thiel
photos by Steve Repicky

Idit Shner’s jazz composition “Fingerprints” starts several minutes into Deejuliano Scott’s film “Last Signs of June.” Scott had his own storytelling reason for placing the soundtrack in this way, but the delay speaks to the song’s origins as well.

After all, when Shner got the request from the Montavilla Jazz Festival to participate in the 2021 Call + Response, we were solidly in the COVID-19 pandemic. “Let’s remember how things were,” Shner said. “All learning was remote; vaccines were just starting to roll out; our health worker friends were getting their first shot, and teachers were not quite vaccinated yet.” To create an original musical composition at that time would definitely be a different experience than usual. It may take longer. It may come in a form different than expected. It would surely surprise—the audience, as well as, perhaps, the composer herself.

Idit Shner performing with John Mambira

Still keeping a physical distance from most people, Shner turned to her “parent pod neighbors” to realize her vision, a melding of Zimbabwean Shona folk music and American jazz. She ticked through her five new bandmates: “John Mambira, who plays percussion and sings on this track, was my next-door neighbor. Torrey Newhart (piano) lives up the hill, a short walk from us. Ken (drums) and Garrett (bass) were a five-minute car ride away.” (In addition, Ratie D, Mambira’s niece, would add mbira and vocal harmonies to “Fingerprints.”)

Practicing and recording also needed to adapt. No one was getting together regularly at that time, and Shner’s regular studio was not an option because her go-to sound engineer, Billy Barnett, not yet vaccinated, wasn’t hosting musicians. So, everyone in the parent-turned-musician pod rehearsed just once in Mambira’s backyard and then brought their own equipment to Newhart’s house and recorded in the living room. “When you have only very few options, you make the most of what you’ve got!” Shner said.

Director Deejuliano Scott with Andrea Vernae and Charles Grant on location during filming for Last Signs of June.

What they ended up with was what Shner called a blessing in disguise: a hyper-local, hyper-authentic piece of music: “In a situation like that, editing or splicing of any kind is not really possible—there is too much bleed between the different microphones—but to me, that preserves the natural on the spot nature of jazz; you hear it pretty much like we played it, and there is great honesty and sincerity in that.”

Next, Shner had to do another new thing: collaborate with a visual artist. She said, “I felt excitement and anticipation mixed with a lot of curiosity handing the project to DJ.” But as with everything else about this unusual, and unusually timed, project, Shner was game for the adventure. She said, “I trusted him completely from the beginning to run with his instinct and what the music meant to him, and I was excited to see what would come out of it.”

Actor Tarvoris Murray plays June Wayne in Last Signs of June

Shner continued, “I don’t have deep thoughts about process; I am a saxophonist, I come up with music, I play the music, and that’s it. The sound speaks for itself… When it comes to visuals and artistic direction of the film, I had no intent, no preconceived notion of where the movie might go. So, when Deejuliano showed me the rough draft, I thought it was super cool and really interesting, just a lot of good vibes all around.”

That’s an understatement. From this unexpected beginning has come something even fuller and longer lasting: the pod quintet was inspired to write six more pieces akin to “Fingerprints,” continued to meet in Torrey’s living room, and ended up recording an album, Heat Wave (OA2, a subsidiary of Origin Records), due out in February 2022, two years after the start of the pandemic that set both Call + Response and this pod quintet in motion.