Jazz fans owe a debt of gratitude to the folks behind the Jazz Icons DVD series. As explained in the liner notes for the recently issued fifth series, a steep downturn in the DVD market during 2009 just about closed the door on this invaluable treasure trove of live jazz videos. Plans for the fifth set were scrapped. After parting ways with longtime distributor Naxos, who handled the first four series, Jazz Icons producer Tom Gulotta had a dream one night that Mosaic Records was releasing the fifth series.
The dream turned out to be quite prescient, as the Reelin’ in the Years Productions team contacted Mosaic and struck up a deal. The result is the six DVD box set Jazz Icons – Series 5, available exclusively through Mosaic, and featuring some of the choicest live jazz the series has ever seen. That’s really saying something, given the series’ history. For the uninitiated, Jazz Icons dusts off long forgotten European television broadcasts featuring some of the greatest jazz artists of all time. Originally taped during the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, these programs are remastered for DVD and presented in the best possible visual and audio quality the format will offer.
So what do we find on Series 5? Well, for starters there’s John Coltrane and his quartet delivering the only filmed performance of his masterpiece A Love Supreme. Filmed in France in 1965, the fifty-two minute performance features Coltrane on tenor sax with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. The quartet begins with intense readings of a trio of Coltrane classics: “Naima,” “Ascension,” and “Impressions.” The transcendent “A Love Supreme Part 1 – Acknowledgement” features some of the most remarkable footage of Coltrane available. The artist seems to become one with his horn. Unfortunately “A Love Supreme Part 2 – Resolution” is incomplete, with several minutes of footage lost forever. That hardly makes it any less essential viewing. The existence of Series 5 is justified by this performance alone. The Coltrane disc is complimented by newly written liner notes by David Liebman.
Also taped in France, Rahsaan Roland Kirk is featured in a 1972 performance that runs about seventy-five minutes. The full color presentation is a terrific way to experience the amazing Kirk as he breaks out the many instruments in his varied arsenal. It’s a stunning performance, especially the multi-part “For Bechet and Ellington and Bigard and Carney and Rabbit,” highlighted by Kirk’s rich clarinet soloing. The deeply soulful “Volunteered Slavery” climaxes the performance in joyful, funky fashion with Kirk bashing percussion instruments while holding one, single nasty note for an impossibly long time (due to his unbelievable circular breathing ability). Kirk was truly a one-of-a-kind performer and this disc affords one of the best opportunities to marvel at his artistry. His multi-horn solo reading of “Satin Doll (Medley)” has to be seen to be believed. Kirk biographer John Kruth contributes an informative new essay.
Thelonious Monk delivers a completely solo performance, taped in France in 1969. Monk runs through a dozen tunes alone at the piano, including a rehearsal take of “Dreamland” and two different versions of “Monk’s Mood.” The fifty-five minute program was taped in color. This is an extremely intimate setting to experience the pianist’s genius. There is no audience, just Monk playing against a black backdrop. His set list consists of numerous classic originals along with distinctive takes on standards such as “Don’t Blame Me” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It.” Twenty minutes of very interesting bonus material is included on the disc, including unaired documentary footage, soundcheck footage, and an interview with Monk. Pianist-composer Ethan Iverson’s essay in the accompanying booklet is especially informative, helping to put this specific performance in context with the rest of Monk’s career.
Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers are featured in a 1959 performance, exhibiting superb ensemble skill. Trumpter Lee Morgan is arguably the star of the show, turning in one dizzyingly inventive solo after another. A young man of twenty-one at the time, Morgan was a uniquely talented trumpet player who was tragically murdered in 1972. This show, filmed in Paris, offers a truly valuable opportunity to see him at work. Wayne Shorter provides no shortage of highlights of his own. The tenor saxophonist, new to the group at the time, plays disciplined, focused leads. Bandleader and drummer Blakey takes quite a few solo spots, trading fours with his band members at various points. This incarnation of the Jazz Messengers is rounded out by Walter Davis on piano and Jymie Merritt on bass. The disc has a short bonus feature consisting of an interview with Art Blakey and a bonus clip of a tune not included in the main set, “Nellie Bly.”
Two separate gigs, which together run seventy-seven minutes, feature hard bop tenor sax player Johnny Griffin fronting two slightly different groups in the summer of 1971. Both include bassist Alby Cullaz and drummer Art Taylor. The first six numbers feature pianist Vince Benedetti, with the legendary Dizzy Gillespie guesting on trumpet for the final two tunes. Gillespie joins the group to great applause for “A Night in Tunisia” and “Hot House,” thoroughly dazzling the audience with his playing. It’s a great finale to the first set, which was actually taped in August. The DVD’s second set comes from July of the same year and includes Rene Urtreger on piano. This four song set was taped in a studio without an audience, opening with a cooking rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time.” Don Sickler’s liner notes provide background about Griffin as well as these specific performances.
If there’s any unifying theme to the six discs in Jazz Icons – Series 5, besides the greatness of the music, it’s that all the performances were shot in France. Freddie Hubbard’s 1973 concert is no exception. The fifty minute performance features the trumpeter and his quintet grooving on three extended numbers. Junior Cook shines on both tenor sax and flute, while George Cables lays down fluid electric piano lines. The rhythm section of Kent Brinkley on bass and Michael Carvin on drums is absolutely on fire during the middle tune, “Intrepid Fox.” After a gorgeous, free form beginning, “First Light” settles into its groove with some amazingly dexterous soloing from Hubbard. Newly written liner notes by jazz writer Neil Tesser are included in the booklet.
Even after the previous four mammoth box sets, Jazz Icons – Series 5 is every bit as essential as its predecessors. Between John Coltrane doing “A Love Supreme,” the amazing multi-horn displays of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the dynamic fusion of Freddie Hubbard, Monk’s solo simplicity, the bluesy bop of Johnny Griffin, and the musical fireworks of Blakey’s Messengers, there is great artistic value in each of these DVDs. Unlike previous Jazz Icons series, these are not available separately and can only be purchased as a box set through Mosaic Records. Visit the Mosaic Records website for more information, including sample clips from each DVD in Jazz Icons – Series 5.