When it comes to jazz music, there is often a question of accessibility. For a variety of reasons, the common perception is that the general 'popular music' fan is too unschooled in jazz to appreciate the genre.
In fact, jazz – much like classical music – is a demanding art form that requires some level of knowledge to truly understand. But I have always rejected the idea that jazz is reserved for some kind of musical elite. Absolutely anyone can listen to, and be touched by, this eclectic soundscape. The new DVD Jazz Icons: Lionel Hampton Live In '58 is a great example of this all-inclusive point of view. Supremely entertaining, this hour-long program is a testament to the joys of watching great musicians doing what they love.
Available on September 30, Jazz Icons: Lionel Hampton Live In '58 is among the third wave of DVDs in the 23 title Jazz Icons series. The concert presented here was filmed on February 17, 1958, at the Royal Theatre Opera House in Liege, Belgium. Lionel Hampton was a masterful showman and bandleader whose primary instrument was vibraphone. He also played, as seen on this DVD, percussion and piano. Throughout the performance, Hampton keeps the pace quick and the tone varied as he leads his big band through nine numbers. This isn't, it should be noted, the full concert. The DVD booklet explains that there was additional material performed by the band. Apparently not all of it was filmed – or was possibly edited out at the time and subsequently discarded.
This is clear simply from watching the film, as Hampton refers to having performed "Round Midnight" but that tune is never heard. Furthermore, the first piece presented is "The High And The Mighty," though trumpeter Art Hoyle states emphatically, "We had played tons of stuff before that part." Regardless, it serves as a captivating opening with Hampton playing his vibes with four mallets. Though I was previously aware of Lionel Hampton, I must confess to having heard very little of his music. Right from the very start, my appetite was whetted for more.
"Hamp's Piano Blues" provides a taste of Hampton soloing on piano. He had an unusual playing style, using primarily the index fingers of both hands pointing straight down to strike the keys. The band's regular piano player is right next to Hampton, comping along. Later in the performance, there is a series of tunes designed to provide a sort of History of Jazz. I wouldn't describe it as coherent or particularly informative, though Hampton attempts to put the different styles in context for the audience. The Dixieland throwback is fun, with some nice clarinet soloing. Also of note is a very lively bebop workout with some great playing from the horn section.
Late in the show, during a number entitled "Sticks Ahoy," Hampton gets a great deal of sound out of a single tom-tom and pair of drumsticks. He performs an extended solo that is fun to watch, rapidly juggling the sticks while the crowd enthusiastically claps along. Even with all the fine work on display, the most interesting aspect of the show is Hampton's expert vibe solos. Not the most common instrument to take a front-and-center role, his lengthy flights of improv are very impressive.
Make no mistake: this film footage is fifty years old and shows its age. Today's home video viewers, accustomed to digitally-taped concerts and Dolby Surround mixes, need to remember that this black-and-white mono presentation can't be expected to match modern standards. That said, I honestly believe the booklet note stating that "every effort has been made to present the best possible quality of the audio and video." There are scratches and visible tape splices, as well as some notably washed-out wide shots, but nothing unreasonable for a film of this age.
It's actually a wonder this, and other material from the Jazz Icons series, even exists today considering its original purpose was for a one-time public television broadcast. And the sound is great, as clear and full as can be expected. The 24 page booklet is very useful, as it is packed with biographical information about Lionel Hampton as well as many illuminating details about the actual concert. Quincy Jones fittingly contributed a foreward, as he cut his teeth as a young trumpeter playing in Hampton's band. Jazz Icons: Lionel Hampton Live In '58 provides an excellent introduction to the musical world of Lionel Hampton. The hour-long DVD disappoints only due to its relative brevity.