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DVD Review: Woody Herman: Blue Flame

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For a big band leader who managed to hold the stage for over 50 years with ever changing versions of his orchestra, Woody Herman never quite gets the acclaim of the likes of a Duke Ellington or a Count Basie. For a clarinetist and alto sax player of some note, no one seems to mention him with the likes of Benny Goodman or Charlie Parker. For a singer who had his share of hit vocals, he doesn’t get the caché accorded to a jazz vocalist like Mel Tormé. Yet listening to the nearly three dozen band members and talking heads interviewed for Jazzed Media’s documentary tribute to the upcoming centennial of Herman’s birth in 2013, Woody Herman: Blue Flame, you have to wonder if he hasn’t really gotten what is his due.

Longevity like Herman’s is no accident. If he wasn’t the greatest player himself, he knew how to surround himself with great musical talent, and he knew enough to let them do their thing. But always in the organic context of the band as a whole—vibraphonist Terry Gibbs tells the story of how he and Stan Getz objected to Herman’s choice of a take for a record, because they felt their solos were better on another take. Herman insisted on his choice, because, he explained, it was the band’s best take. More than one of the many band members interviewed explains that Herman treated the band like a team. He was always looking for what was best for the band.

The results speak for themselves. In 1936, he took over the Isham Jones Orchestra and began by developing an original voice for the new band. calling it “The Band That Plays The Blues.” It was the period of the great swing bands and Herman’s adaptation was successful, but tastes change. In the ’40′s and ’50′s bebop and cool jazz emerged, in the ’60′s and ’70′s there was rock and fusion—and through it all Herman’s bands, now sporting the famous nickname the Herd: the First Herd, the Second Herd, the Thundering Herd, the Young Thundering Herd, adapted to the new genres with renewed energy from an ever changing cast of talented young musicians.

The documentary concentrates on the history of the different manifestations of Herman’s bands focusing on the many jazz giants that worked with him—musicians like Pete Candoli in his Superman outfit, Stan Getz and Neal Hefti who made fun of Herman’s playing, Ralph Burns who did much of the arranging for the band’s earliest incarnations. There is less time devoted to Herman’s life outside of music. His wife and daughter are mentioned, as are his later troubles with the I.R.S., but by and large this is the story of his music.

And without doubt the best thing in it is the vintage footage of the band. Beginning with a 1976 performance from an Iowa Public Broadcasting special of “The Four Brothers,” the Jimmy Giuffre composition best known in the Second Herd’s version, the film presents full length performances of nearly all of Herman’s finest work. Also form the 1976 show, there is “Early Autumn” and “The Blues in the Night.” There are several selections from the band’s appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show including a 1968 version of “Calidonia,” as well as a couple of tunes from early motion picture appearances.

Not only does the band, in all its incantations swing, but it is also clear that Woody Herman is a showman. If his clarinet playing is sometimes questioned, there is no question about his ability to play the audience, a skill in a band’s front man that may in the long run be the more important talent. At a time like ours, where a good many jazz musicians lose themselves in their own little world, and the audience is barely an afterthought, there may well be a lesson to be learned from Woody Herman.

Written, directed and narrated by award winning documentarian Graham Carter and produced with The Woody Herman Society, Woody Herman: Blue Flame set for November DVD release runs a fascinating quick paced hour and 50 minutes. Check out the trailer:

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