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The ‘Jazz Icons’ DVDs
By JEFF TAMARKIN  |  November 26, 2007


VIDEO: Duke Ellington live in 1958 (from the Jazz Icons DVD)

In the era of YouTube, we’re apt to forget that not every note of music ever played has been captured on film or video. Many artists whose key work predates the ’70s are sparsely represented in action during their heyday. So when a DVD series like “Jazz Icons” comes along to offer long-lost, high-quality, vintage live and in-studio performance footage of bona fide giants in the process of creating, it’s cause for rejoicing.

To date, Jazz Icons (it’s also the name of the label releasing the DVDs) has issued 16 titles, available individually or in two boxed sets, the first containing nine discs and the second seven (plus a short bonus disc). The first series, released in 2006, focused on 1957-’78: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Thelonious Monk, Buddy Rich, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, and Chet Baker. The new second volume, spanning 1958-’65, devotes a disc each to Duke Ellington, Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus, Sarah Vaughan, Dave Brubeck, Wes Montgomery, and John Coltrane.

These are all true performances (all filmed in Europe), not compilations of MTV-like canned videos or one-off tracks from assorted television appearances. Filmed in black-and-white, the programs stick to the simplest of concepts: here are great musicians at work — let’s get up close, watch them, and see who they are.

There is no standard formula. The 80-minute Ellington performance, filmed at Amsterdam’s famed Concertgebouw in 1958, is a single show, the earliest known complete concert by the orchestra available. Sarah Vaughan, meanwhile, is seen in three separate sets, two from 1958 and another six years later. The difference is striking. In the earlier footage, a demure Vaughan is visibly nervous until she opens her mouth to sing. Then confidence washes over her — her timing and phrasing are impeccable, her voice is perfect as she runs through “Lover Man,” which she nonchalantly informs us she recorded with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and “Over the Rainbow,” which she immediately owns. By 1964, her singing has become huskier and she’s sweating profusely, but she still leaves you wondering whether there’s anything the woman can’t do with that voice. She burrows deep inside the lyrics of the Mack Gordon/Harry Warren standard “The More I See You,” creating a stunning piece of interpretation without visible strain.

The Wes Montgomery disc is another kind of exercise. Recorded in Holland, Belgium, and England in 1965, it presents rare glimpses of the guitarist and his band hashing out tunes privately as well as in public. Close-ups of Montgomery’s hands traversing the fretboard should be required viewing for any aspiring jazz guitarist.

The Coltrane disc is a revelation in that it spans the period from 1960 (with Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz sitting in) to 1965, charting Trane’s evolution from mere innovator to force of nature. Two takes of “My Favorite Things,” from 1961 (with McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Eric Dolphy, and Reggie Workman) and ’65, are light years apart — though the earlier rendition is captivating, by ’65, Coltrane and band (now with Jimmy Garrison on bass) are off in the zone, flirting with free jazz yet never losing sight of the melody. Dolphy also appears on the Mingus volume, three gigs from April 1964. A brilliant and complex set of performances and rehearsals (“Meditations on Integration” is a masterwork), they would be among Dolphy’s last — two months later he was dead. Jazz Icons gives us the most detailed studies to date of this pioneer of the avant-garde.

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