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Music DVD Review: Jazz Icons: Series 4

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Jazz Icons: Series 4 rescues nearly ten hours of priceless jazz performance footage from the vaults of television studios across Europe. The new eight-DVD box set easily lives up to the standard set by the previous three multi-disc releases.

These performances, by the true masters of the genre, were broadcast once and locked away for decades. In some cases, the tapes never saw the light of day at all. Presented in the best possible audio and video quality, and accompanied by booklets loaded with genuinely insightful analysis, the Jazz Icons series continues to assemble an invaluable library of jazz history.

While longtime jazz buffs will recognize the seven artists featured in Series 4, there aren't many household names to draw in the average neophyte. However that shouldn't be a deterrent, as each of these musicians deserves to be appreciated. Each of the individual artists' discs are available separately, with the eighth disc containing bonus performances only available as part of the box.

These concerts date back to the 1960s, when the visual style was far less frenetic than modern live video recordings. The great benefit of this no-frills presentation is that the viewer is allowed to focus on the visuals that really matter, with a minimum of intrusive audience cutaways and other distractions. We can drink in the expressive faces of these artists as they feel every note. Fingers relentlessly working an instrument are lingered on long enough to fully appreciate the dexterity necessary to produce this complex music.

A true innovator works wonders on the organ in Jimmy Smith: Live In '69, a ninety-minute performance shot in Paris. Bob Porter, who contributed a foreward to the disc's booklet, states emphatically, "Jimmy Smith is one of the four or five greatest jazz musicians of the last 50 years." High praise, to be sure, but not undeserved. Smith pioneered the Hammond organ as a solo instrument in jazz, focusing largely on blues and R&B-oriented material. He crafted a series of popular jazz albums featuring a trio that eliminated bass, containing only guitar, drums, and Smith's keys. His influential style found him playing bass lines with his left hand, while soloing with his right. Speaking of his solo style, Smith said, "I copped my solos from horn players…I can't get what I want from keyboard players."

Jimmy Smith: Live In '69 features Eddie McFadden on guitar and Charlie Crosby on drums. The program is split into two sets. The first is largely ballad-dominated while the second is steeped in blues. Smith's own "The Sermon" serves as the centerpiece of the first set, stretching out for some fifteen minutes. McFadden's laid-back, almost casual soloing provides a stark contrast to Smith's quicksilver runs. A favorite in the second set is a rough and tumble reading of Preston Foster's "Got My Mojo Working," with a gravel-throated lead vocal from Smith. This is the guy who wrote the book on jazz organ improvisation, and every minute commands the viewer's attention.

The lengthiest disc in the set is dedicated to one of the all-time tenor sax legends, Coleman Hawkins: Live In '62 & '64. At a generous 140 minutes, this disc is proof positive of the vital playing to come out of Hawkins' later years. The 1962 set was filmed in Belgium, the quartet consisting of Hawkins (tenor sax), Georges Arvanitas (piano), Jimmy Woode (bass), and Kansas Fields (drums). Though the video quality is a little fuzzy, the sound is crystal clear. "Lover Come Back To Me" is a highlight, taken at a blistering tempo, with great rhythmic support from Fields. In fact, the drums are repeatedly a standout throughout the performance. In the set closer, Dizzy Gillespie's "Ow!," Fields and Hawkins trade fours for several choruses, provoking each other to new heights of inspiration.

Much sharper video-wise, though hampered by an annoying voiceover announcer, is a 1964 concert from England. Hawkins is working with a mostly different band here, a quintet that adds includes Harry "Sweets" Edison (trumpet), "Sir" Charles Thompson (piano), and "Papa" Jo Jones (drums). Only Jimmy Woode on bass is retained from the Belgium show.

The highpoint of the set is a lovely trio of ballads, chosen by Charles Thompson, performed as a medley with each spotlighting a different member of the band. "Lover Man" finds Hawkins finessing a rich, melodious solo from his tenor. "Stella By Starlight" reduces the quintet to a trio, as Thompson's piano is backed only by bass and drums. Concluding the medley, "The Girl From Ipanema" is buoyed by Edison's trumpet. Coleman Hawkins: Live In '62 & '64 spotlights the man primarily responsible for putting forth the tenor sax as a solo voice, rather than a mere ensemble component, in the autumn of his career. His playing in this video is still beautiful and at times awe-inspiring.

Art Farmer: Live In '64 treats us to an hour of footage taped in England. Leading his quartet with his pure, crystalline flugelhorn tone, Farmer turns in a precise set of prime melodic jazz. The ensemble work here is brilliant, with Jim Hall's guitar deserving the majority of kudos. That said, the rhythm section of Steve Swallow on bass and Pete La Roca on drums provides ample support. Highlights includes an up-tempo run through Sonny Rollins' "Valse Hot" and a bluesy romp through Milt Jackson's "Bag's Groove." On the latter, Jim Hall works his guitar with intense concentration during his solo. The camera sits transfixed on on his fingers as they work magic along the fretboard.

Best of all are the dreamy, languid ballad "Sometime Ago," written by Sergio Mihanovich and Farmer's own "Petite Belle." "Sometime Ago" casts a trance-like atmosphere as Farmer chooses each of his solo notes carefully. "Petite Belle" is a bossa nova with an impossibly beautiful unaccompanied intro by Farmer. The liner notes, written by Grammy-winning producer/arranger/musician Don Sickler, deserve special notice. As great as the essays are for each disc, Sickler's commentary in Art Farmer: Live In '64 is particularly insightful and detailed.

Erroll Garner, I am ashamed to admit, is a musician I was unfamiliar with prior to delving into this set. Though as John Murph points out in his liner notes, there are likely more than a few students of jazz who have overlooked the piano skills of Mr. Garner. He was completely omitted from the Ken Burns documentary Jazz, raising the hackles of more than a few jazz scholars and musicians alike. Burns justified his choice by claiming Garner wasn't a true innovator and even with his nearly nineteen hour documentary, every great musician couldn't be featured.

I'm grateful to have discovered him as part of Jazz Icons: Series 4 with Erroll Garner: Live In '63 & '64, an hour's worth of footage from two concerts. These are thrilling performances, featuring brilliant piano playing by Garner, ably supported by Eddie Calhoun on bass and Kelly Martin on drums.

The first set was filmed in Belgium in 1963. One hallmark of Garner's playing were his elaborate improvised introductions that leave the listener, and on occasion even his bandmates, guessing as to which tune he will be playing. Standards such as "Fly Me To the Moon" and "It Might As Well Be Spring" are given fresh interpretations. Garner's biggest claim to fame (and the only reason I initially recognized his name) was having written one of the all-time great standards, "Misty." That evergreen is given a tremendous reading here as well. The 1964 set was filmed in Sweden. More tasty renditions of standards like "When Your Lover Has Gone" and "My Funny Valentine" are doled out. Erroll Garner: Live In '63 & '64 is the real sleeper of this set and demands to be seen.

Easily the most recognizable name in Series 4 is Woody Herman, whose Swinging Herd was filmed in England in 1964. The resulting hour-long program, Woody Herman: Live In '64, is an interesting deviation from the small combos featured in this series' other discs. A sixteen-piece big band presents a different kind of jazz, with much greater emphasis on intricate arrangements and much less on lengthy improvisation.

Herman is, of course, a legend of the swing era and his bandleading skills are a marvel to watch. His clarinet playing is nothing to scoff at either. Herman addresses the crowd frequently, which contrasts with the mostly silent musicians featured on the other discs. He introduces songs by title and name checks various featured soloists. It's a much more commercial approach to presenting this kind of music, with a greater focus on showmanship.

Even so, the musicianship is stellar as Herman's bands always included top-notch players. Nat Pierce was the band's piano player, and nowhere is his playing better featured than on his original, "That's Where It Is," a lightning fast blues tune. Jack Hanna anchors the Herd on drums, and his work is exemplary throughout the performance. Standouts amongs the horns include Sal Nistico on tenor sax, Paul Fontaine on trumpet, and Phil Wilson on trombone. Wilson gets a special feature on "It's a Lonesome Old Town." One of Herman's signature pieces, "Caldonia," closes the concert. Taken at a madly quick tempo and featuring, as usual for this number, Herman on lead vocal, it's an energetic finale to a fun show.

In a very rare case, an artist who has been previously featured by Jazz Icons makes a return appearance. Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers were part of Jazz Icons: Series 1. In the new series we find Art Blakey: Live In '65, backed by what the liner notes refer to as one of his few undocumented bands. With the Jazz Messengers dormant, drummer Blakey toured briefly with a band that included Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Jaki Byard (piano), Nathan Davis (tenor sax), and Reggie Workman (bass).

Throughout this smoking hot concert, filmed in France, each member gets his chance to shine. Trumpet legend Hubbard gets plenty of space to stretch out on two originals, "The Hub" and "Crisis." The latter runs about twenty-four minutes and gives each player time in the spotlight. Special notice must be given to Nathan Davis on tenor, as his daring, inventive solos churn and boil throughout. In between those two tunes is a ballad, "Blue Moon." Hubbard is front and center, crafting a mesmerizing solo. With the closing "NY Theme" only a brief minute or so long, there are really only three numbers performed here. Three numbers are enough, however, to make Art Blakey: Live In '65 the most exciting disc in the series.

My personal vote for least essential disc in Series 4 is Anita O'Day: Live In '63 & '70. Like so many things, it all comes down to personal taste: I simply do not care for jazz vocalists in general. I have a strong bias towards instrumentalists, which makes me ill-prepared to discuss the merits of O'Day's skills.

Captured on tape in Sweden, 1963, O'Day runs through a set of standards including "Honeysuckle Rose" and "On Green Dolphin Street." She looks curiously ghoulish; a rough looking early-forties if I ever saw it. The superb liner notes by Doug Ramsey help fill in some details of her personal troubles that certainly contributed to her appearance. It bears repeating that the booklets for each DVD contain mini-history lessons and are well worth reading. With Ramsey's essay, I learned a great deal about another artist I was previously unfamiliar with.

The Norweigen concert from 1970 finds O'Day in somewhat diminished voice. There is some wear and tear seven years on from the previous show, but her interpretive skills seem intact. There is an interesting medley of the Beatles' "Yesterday" with Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays." The liner notes say that dozens of performers had melded these two numbers, but this was the first time I'd heard it. As a side note, Georges Avaritas is the pianist in this band. His first appearance in Series 4 was in Coleman Hawkins' 1962 set.

Finally we have a bonus disc that is only available as part of the Jazz Icons: Series 4 box set. Make no mistake about it, the "bonus" performances are every bit as valuable as the ones on the main discs. First up is a four song set from Coleman Hawkins, filmed in England in 1966. Benny Carter plays alto in this group, and is featured prominently on a tender reading of "I Can't Get Started." Hawkins delivers a throaty, coarse reading of "Body & Soul," a tune so thoroughly identified with him but one that didn't appear on his main disc. Erroll Garner turns up again for a set filmed in Holland, 1960. The three tunes were all featured on his main disc, but it's a worthy encore nonetheless. Lastly is a repeat appearance from Jimmy Smith, this time in Denmark, 1968. His five song set opens with a grooving take on Bobbie Gentry's "Ode To Billie Joe." Another great hour of music that wraps up the series.

Jazz Icons: Series 4 offers music fans yet another chance to peer into the past, watching the past masters at work. We're very fortunate to have these old broadcasts reissued on DVD before they succumb to the ravishes of time. It wouldn't have been surprising if the master tapes were forgotten forever, eventually deteriorating to the point of uselessness.

This isn't commercially friendly popular music. It takes patience and attention to really appreciate what these musicians created. But at the same time it is enjoyable, joyous, and ultimately accessible art that hopefully will gain a wider audience thanks to these releases. Hopefully we'll see another series in the near future.

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About The Other Chad

Hi, I'm Chaz Lipp. An old co-worker of mine thought my name was Chad. Since we had two Chads working there at the time, I was "The Other Chad."