Like Ray Charles, he became blind as a child. Like Dave Thomas, he was adopted. Like many kids, he learned to play guitar at a young age (3). Later, he would tour with, or sit in with, such notable stars as Jerry Lee Lewis, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Buddy Guy. Then, sadly, he died young (41, of cancer).
Beautiful Noise was a television series produced in Canada that ran for three seasons from 2006-08. The series featured profiles, biographies, and performances including this one filmed in Toronto in January of 2006. MDV Visual released this DVD in March of this year for the second anniversary of Jeff Healey's death.
Those of us who really enjoy music and consider ourselves enthusiasts (notice how I stopped short of saying "aficionado") might not have been familiar with Healey as a jazz musician. Indeed, he got his start as a blues-rock performer. It is some consolation to me that several rock-blues fans I've spoken with were not familiar with Healey's interests in classical jazz. And his is not the same jazz as that of George Benson, Lee Ritenour, Zachary Breaux, Dave Brubeck, or Dave Grusin. When I first put on this DVD, my wife walked in and said, "Is that Django? It really sounds like gypsy jazz!" A few minutes later, "Sweet Georgia Brown" came on and I teased, "It's the Preservation Hall Jazz Band from the French Quarter!" In reality, it was neither — but heavily influenced by both.
In a telephone conversation with Colin Bray, the bass player for the Jazz Wizards, I learned that Jeff Healey had indeed played gypsy jazz and used the same type guitar as Django. Bray also made it clear that Healey had also been heavily influenced by Louis Armstrong's style, methods, and sound. Like Armstrong, Healey also played trumpet. It's no wonder that Miss Bob and I had the initial reactions mentioned above. Bray and Healey had been friends since they met at age 16 and shared their interests in classic jazz of the 1920s and '30s. Bray's interest never strayed while Healey spent much time and energy making a significant income in the rock/blues genres. Simply stated, Jeff used the income from his rock and blues endeavors to support his jazz habit. By the time of his death, Healey had collected close to 30,000 jazz records, bringing his vinyl collection to almost five tons!
Healey and Bray had begun playing jazz at festivals and clubs when time permitted, and once Healey's contractual obligations to the rock industry ended, they formed a premier jazz band. The group was assembled from previous experience, referrals, and word of mouth. In addition to his own amazing talent, Jeff Healey displayed a remarkable ability to judge and select other talented musicians to form the Jazz Wizards. Again following in the tradition of Armstrong, Healey always liked to have a female vocalist. One of the first to sing with the Jazz Wizards was Alex Pangman. Nicole Stoffman (of Canadian television fame) followed and then Terra Hazelton who appears in this DVD on several numbers. She sets herself apart with her powerful, throaty voice. I spoke with Hazelton by phone and she has strong feelings for Healey who discovered her in a country western bar. Other performers on the Beautiful Noise production include: Christopher Plock – soprano and alto sax, vocals; Drew Jurecka – violin and sax; Jesse Barksdale – guitar; Colin Bray – bass; Reide Kaiser – piano; Gary Scriven – drums; and Ross Wooldridge – clarinet.
The Beautiful Noise performance includes nine toe-tapping numbers that will inspire any couch potato to action. Every song features several solos by various members of the group, with three lengthy pieces showcasing each member of the band for an applause-getting spotlight performance. Healey not only surrounded himself with great talent, he made sure they had the chance to display their skills. Terra Hazelton agreed with Colin Bray's observation that Healey had a great sense of humor and loved to have fun on stage. He connected with his audiences and found other artists that did as well. It's no surprise that the Jazz Wizards were immensely popular with their fans. Can you imagine the vibes when nine premiere artists are all so connected to the audience?
"War Cat" is a guitar-violin duet with Drew Jurecka highlighting strong gypsy jazz influence. "Darktown Strutter's Ball" features saxophonist Chris Plock with his own brand of scat singing, and Terra Hazelton brings the house down on two regular numbers and one of the encores. Healey returns to the mike on the first encore number and displays his skill on trumpet and as a balladeer with "You Go To My Head" accompanied only by Reide Kaiser on piano. The extra feature on the DVD is an option for stereo or surround sound.
If you haven't already discovered Jeff Healey in either his rock/blues or classic jazz incarnations, this DVD will make you regret not having found him sooner and convince you to get acquainted quickly. I've already got several of his CDs on my wishlist at Amazon!