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Jazz Icons DVD’s: Fourth Series by Various Artists

The Jazz Icons box sets of DVD’s documenting some of the jazz legends’ concerts and broadcasts in Europe continue to expand, to the extent that they could almost fill an entire book shelf now. We’re all the more fortunate for such availability. While we cherish some of the landmark audio recordings of these artists, visual images of them in concert before the ubiquity of video cameras offer insights into their public personalities and the reactions of audiences to their performances. The seven jazz artists showcased in Jazz Icons’ Series 4 compilation perform in their prime from 1962 to 1970 after their reputations had been solidly established. European jazz enthusiasts anticipated their appearances. Luckily, broadcasts of the American jazz performers were meticulously preserved for the full lengths of their concerts. One is struck by the fact that jazz’s international appeal delivers dividends decades later as the European broadcasters return to America exceptional performances discovered by Reelin’ in the Years the custodian of the world’s largest library of music videos. Only through Reelin’ in the Years’ persistence in searching for and negotiating the rights for videos of jazz performances recorded abroad are such invaluable DVD’s available for enjoyment by the following generation of jazz enthusiasts.

As usual, Jazz Icons Series 4 offers a broad selection of jazz artists, instead of staying within a preconceived style or instead of seeking videos of musicians who are currently in vogue through retrospectives. The box set includes three jazz performers who are now less frequently heard than the acknowledged giants like Miles Davis or John Coltrane: Erroll Garner, Anita O’Day and Woody Herman. In Garner’s case, writer John Murph recalls the controversy surrounding the pianist’s exclusion from Ken Burns’ TV documentary, Jazz (not to mention Jazz’s omission of the Latin influence on jazz almost entirely). In O’Day’s case, she remained individualistic, unpredictable and undersung, despite her unique talent, and the public often was fascinated more by her private life than by her art. And now, with all of the tributes to the great jazz bands and musicians of the swing and bebop eras, what do we hear about Woody Herman? Not much. The public may have forgotten that his Thundering Herds recorded unforgettable tracks and created breakthrough opportunities for superlative musicians like Stan Getz, Jimmy Rowles, Neal Hefti, Serge Chaloff, Zoot Sims and Chubby Jackson. Even so, Series 4 offers European concerts indisputable jazz legends like Jimmy Smith and Coleman Hawkins as well. Art Blakey’s 1965 Paris concert with the thrilling Freddie Hubbard, Jaki Byard, Nathan Davis and Reggie Workman contrasts with Jazz Icons’ disk of the Jazz Messengers’ 1958 concert with Blakey, Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merritt. As always, the Reelin’ the the Years producers David Peck, Phillip Galloway and Tom Gulatta have lavished detailed attention on the content, packaging and description of the DVD’s, paying due respect to the talents represented therein. Each DVD contains not only invaluable performances, but also 24-page booklets in which various jazz writers such as Steve Voce or Ashley Kahn cover the subjects’ biographies and the circumstances of the recordings. At a time when the previous generation’s works are played over and over again and are increasingly cherished, Reelin’ in the Years deserves special praise for uncovering new material that provides additional opportunites to enjoy the work of these jazz artists.

The Art Blakey DVD may be the most frequently played DVD in this series, not only due to Blakey’s relentless drive throughout a performance, but primarily due to the exceptional caliber of the musicians in the band he called the "New Jazzmen" for this concert: Freddie Hubbard, Nathan Davis, Jaki Byard and Reggie Workman. Hubbard confidently takes charge on the first number, "The Hub," and delivers chorus after chorus of invigorating improvisation. Not to be underestimated, though, is the underrated Nathan Davis, who makes known his own unique presence in the midst of these future jazz legends. Byard, a consummate accompanist, develops his own solos of unpredictable and technically inimitable force, and one has to appreciate the fact that the piano was properly miked so that Byard can be heard amid the power of the drums and horns. During the show’s 51 minutes, the quintet performs four pieces, counting the brief "NY Theme," as they stretch out to improvise at their leisure in an ultimately exciting and memorable concert by one of the best of the Messengers’ groups.

As for Art Farmer, the Jazz icons series captures his performance before a clapping and attentive audience in England, where the BBC with foresight filmed it for posterity. Placed on risers of varying heights, Farmer’s quartet performed eight standards ever popular with jazz musicians at a time when he was in top form, confident and eloquent. Farmer and Jim Hall earlier had played at the Newport Jazz Festival, and Farmer recognized not only the subtlety of the flugelhorn/guitar sound, but also Hall’s keen attentiveness and originality. Bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Pete LaRoca complete Farmer’s quartet, a testament to Farmer’s career-long interest in working with outstanding musicians. The British concert covers the range of Farmer’s style, from the fast-paced "So in Love" to the balladic mellowness of "Darn That Dream" consisting of Swallow’s racing bass lines and then Farmer’s cleanly articulated sixteenth notes, ever melodic still. Farmer’s quartet, started in 1963, performed its last concert in England in 1964, and now the Jazz Icons series has released it. The video recording assumes even more importance in light of the loss of numerous unreleased Farmer quartet tapes from Atlantic recordings when its storage facility burned to the ground in 1978.

The audience appeal of Erroll Garner’s trio becomes unmistakably clear during a 1963 concert in Belgium and another in Sweden in 1964. Ever the showman and the consummate jazz piano professional, Garner appeared never to tire of acknowledging his audiences not to mention the cameraman as well. Always staggering the beat, sprinkling songs with notes or making clear the presence of the beat with his forceful right hand, Garner perhaps to a fault as did Art Tatum made it all look effortless. Still, Garner’s style remains instantly identifiable, individualistic, orchestral, technically complex, often dramatic with tremolos and surging emphases.... and, strangely enough, infrequently imitated, unlikes the styles of other pianists like Thelonious Monk. Yes, Garner does play "Misty" with elan and spontaneous expressivenss. He also plays much more on the Series 4 DVD, which may spark a re-appreciation of Garner’s talent.

There are 139-plus minutes of Coleman Hawkins in concert in Belgium and England, when he was just under and then just over sixty years of age and several years before his gradual physical decline. Hawkins’ appearance in Brussels was an invaluable contribution to the celebration of the saxophone itself, the Festival de Belgique "Aldolphe Sax," and the Jazz Icons recording is the first to be released of his performance. The 1962 event recognized Hawkins’ role in transforming the tenor saxophone from a novelty instrument to one that has become capable of countless memorable solos in voices that reflect the personalities of the people who play it. For the concert, Hawkins worked with bassist Jimmy Woode, drummer Kansas Fields and French pianist Georges Arvanitas, who performed with touring American jazz musicians like Dexter Gordon. While the back-up musicians have their moments of crowd-pleasing applause, like those creating the excitement of the prestissimo "Lover Come Back to Me," clearly Hawkins is in charge, and his presence is felt even when he doesn’t play. And when he does, the audience soaks in his signature style, instantly recognizable during his rubato first chorus of "Moonlight in Vermont" or ever-varied in his response to the fours he trades with Fields on "Ow!" The second half of the DVD, recorded in 1964 for a BBC television program, is just as remarkable as ex-Basie bandsmen Harry "Sweets" Edison and Jo Jones join Hawkins, as do pianist "Sir" Charles Thompson and again bassist Jimmy Woode after his move to Europe. The Wembley concert had more of a jam session flavor than that of a concert as all of the first-rate musicians contribute equally, with Edison in his prime providing as many high points as did the bearded Hawkins. At times, the group gels in a solid groove reminiscent of the Basie band’s, particularly on Hawkins’ "Disorder at the Border," with Thompson sprinkling Basie-isms, Jones subtly brushing the group along, Hawkins inventing ever-kaleidoscopic variations on the blues and Edison instilling his solos with trademark swing.

Woody Herman’s British concert in 1964 basically documents his last hurrah his last memorable band, his last thunder before Herman’s decline due to the band’s unfortunate mismanagement and financial problems, including calamitous tax debts. During this edition of the Woody Herman Swinging Herd, the energy it projects results from the musicians’ collective dedication and spirit to make it happen, even as Herman remained the out-front presence as he took the occasional solos. Although the musicians hadn’t earned their own widely known individual reputations as jazzmen, collectively the band possesses power and verve, thanks to the mentorship of Herb Pomeroy of Berklee who had taught most of the musicians in the sixties Swinging Herd. Indeed, the musicians had more confidence in the band’s potential than Herman did, and pianist Nat Pierce in particular convinced Herman to proceed. The Jazz Icons DVD fortunately documents the snap of the solos and the enthusiasm of the bandsmen as they played during this band’s five-year life, when Herman released a series of new albums. One of the re-discoveries of the disk is Sal Nistico’s restless energy, as if always raising the bar, particularly on "Caldonia," propelled at a blistering pace by drummer Jake Hanna. When Nistico and trumpeter Paul Fontaine aren’t causing audience excitement, trombonist Phil Wilson claims attention in more mellow fashion with his feature on "It’s a Lonesome Old Town." Herman basically let the band loose and occasionally contributes his clarinet solos although he does provide a suave alto sax solo on "Days of Wine and Roses." A band leader most of his life, Woody Herman in his fifties was fortunate to have enjoyed the work of this last band of updated repertoire and younger musicians so that he wouldn’t be remembered only for his first two Herds.

Then there’s Anita O’Day. What can be written about her that she hasn’t already written in her candid autobiography, High Times Hard Times, which jazz writers incessantly quote? And why not? O’Day continuously defined herself on her own terms, even in her music. Series 4 features O’Day in concert in Stockholm in 1963 and in Oslo in 1970, as she sought audiences for her music when rock music overtook the popularity of big band singers. Even though the ever-present and opportunistic John Poole played drums during the Swedish performance, O’Day recruited pianist Göran Engdahl and bassist Roman Dylag there. A French trio led by pianist Georges Arvanitas accompanied her in Norway. Such accommodations weren’t as glamorous they they would seem. As O’Day’s former manager, Alan Eichler, said, "Anita has always been overlooked, even financially. Why did Anita have to fly coach everywhere while all of the other singers flew in business class? The others stayed in suites while Anita stayed in dump hotels. We drove in vans from city to city in Europe while the other singers got limousines." Nonetheless, O’Day took obvious pride in her work and remained quirky and original throughout her life. Combining "Yesterday" and "Yesterdays," though not an original concept, neatly fits O’day’s ironic view of what transpired in her life up to that point, as usual without sentimentality. While one can appreciate O’Day’s phrasing and vocalistic daredevilry in audio recordings, the Jazz Icons DVD reminds us of her effective stage presence too when she brings meaning to the lyrics of ballads like "I Can’t Get Started" or as she again and again tears to shreds "Tea for Two."

In his written introduction to the DVD of Jimmy Smith’s concert in Paris in 1969, WBGO announcer Bob Porter boldly states that Jimmy Smith is "one of the four or five greatest jazz musicians of the last fifty years." Expect much discussion, if not disagreement. I agree. After all, Smith elevated the organ beyond the techniques developed by Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett, Count Basie and others to a level of importance equal to other instruments’ through his influential musicianship and abundance of new ideas. So Smith unquestionably fits the Jazz Icons producers’ objective of documenting video performances by legendary talent in their prime years. In Series 4, Smith’s trio performs in 1969 to an appreciative Parisian audience. Moreover, the videography rises to a level equal to the sound, an uncommon occurrence at a time when cameras rarely moved, and we get to observe not only Smith’s joy in performing, but also his technique at the keyboard something that organists often kept private to preserve their "secrets," as Hank Marr had noted. Excellently produced by a French team that obviously appreciated the value of a Jimmy Smith concert, the video shows Smith as his exuberant best.

As if these seven hours, give or take a few minutes, of previously unavailable video jazz performances weren’t enough, the box set includes a bonus disk of three additional performances: Coleman Hawkins in London in 1966, Erroll Garner in Amsterdam in 1962 and Jimmy Smith in Copenhagen in 1968. While each has its unforgettable moments, special mention must be made of Hawkins’ collaboration, once again, with some influential jazz icons: in this case, Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, Bob Cranshaw and Louis Bellson. While it’s gratifying to see and hear this quintet perform, the generosity of four of them allows the electrifying Bellson to steal the show on the final number, "Disorder at the Border," which consists almost entirely of his thrilling drum solo.

Reelin’ in the Years once again has uncovered even more extraordinary, previously unavailable performances that bring to life the artistry of some of the innovators of the jazz art form.

Series 4 is available as an entire package, or the DVD’s may be acquired separately.

Don Williamson

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Various Artists
  • CD Title: Jazz Icons DVD’s: Fourth Series
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2009
  • Record Label: Reelin in the Years Productions'
  • Musicians: Various Artists
  • Rating: Five Stars
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