iRoM’s Holiday Gift Guide: Jazz Icons Series 4

This is the first in a continuing series of iRoM holiday gift recommendations that will be adding new items  until the end of 2009.

By Don Heckman

The latest entry in the Jazz Icons DVD series – Jazz Icons Series 4 – continues to provide extraordinary collections of live performances by some of the music’s most legendary figures.  The featured artists in this group are Jimmy Smith, Coleman Hawkins, Art Farmer, Errol Garner, Woody Herman, Art Blakey and Anita O’Day.  (The DVDs, produced by Reelin’ in the Years Productions and Naxos, are available in a boxed set as well as individually.)

Mostly filmed or taped in the ‘60s for European television, the production is superb.  Cameras linger on revelatory close-ups, and the flow of images is always at the service of the music.  Unlike the unpleasant, herky-jerky, director-centric editing style that has become almost obligatory in music films of the post-MTV era, these videos create the convincing ambiance of a live performance.

The Jimmy Smith set, recorded in Paris in 1969, features his classic jazz organ trio format with guitarist Eddie McFadden and drummer Charlie Crosby.  Loose and swinging, the selections range from “Satin Doll” and “Sonnymoon for Two” to “The Days of Wine and Roses” and Smith’s atmospheric vocal on “Got My Mojo Working,”   As with each of the discs, there is a detailed liner note essay providing context and background, in this case by Ashley Kahn.

There are two performances in the Coleman Hawkins set, the first – recorded at the Adolphe Sax Festival in Belgium in 1962 – has never been seen before; the second dates from a 1964 BBC Televison show recorded at Wembley Town Hall in London.  This is prime Hawkins, defining sensual balladry with tunes such as “Lover Come Back to Me,” “Moonlight in Vermont” and “Stella By Starlight” and spirited mainstream jazz in “Disorder at the Border” and “Centerpiece.”  In the English segment, he’s joined by theinimitable trumpet of Harry “Sweets’ Edison.  The liner essay is by Scott Deveaux.

Art Farmer concentrates on flugelhorn in his appearance, recorded for BBC Television in 1964.  Always a lyrical player, he sounds even more engaging in the dark-toned instrument.  But what makes the performance even more unique is his interaction with the extraordinarily empathic playing of guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Pete LaRoca.  The liner essay is by trumpeter/arranger/composer Don Sickler.

Two performances by Erroll Garner – in Belgium in ’63 and Sweden in ’64 – are marvelously entertaining displays of this one-of-a-kind artist at work.  His mobile, expressive face becomes an intimate part of his tempo-shifting, dynamically inventive progress through classics such as “Misty” and “Sweet and Lovely,” as well as the seemingly unlikely “One Note Samba” and “Thanks For The Memories.”  In each case, he makes the tune his own, backed by steady, understanding support of bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin.  John Murph provides the liner essay.

The set by Woody Herman’s Swinging Herd was recorded by the BBC in 1964.  This installment of the Herman Herds hasn’t always received the attention or the credit it deserves.  Driven by the rhythm section of Nat Pierce – who also wrote most of the charts and was the band’s straw boss – drummer Jake Hanna and bassist Chuck Andreus, it was an ensemble that swung as hard as most of the earlier Herman groups.  The soloing by the fiery tenor saxophone team of Sal Nistico and Joe Romano, with trombonist Phil Wilson leaves no notes unturned, and the new versions of classics “Four Brothers” and an astonishingly fast “Caldonia” are matched in intensity by heated interpretations of Charles Mingus’ “Better Git It In Your Soul.” Horace Silver’s “Sister Sadie” and Oscar Peterson’s “Hallelujah Time.”  The liner essay is by Steve Voce.

The Art Blakey Quintet was recorded in France in 1966 by one of the drummer/leader’s most transitory ensembles, assembled primarily for a relatively brief European tour.  But it’s a compelling line-up, nonetheless, with trumpeter Freddy Hubbard, tenor saxophonist Nathan Davis, pianist Jackie Byard and bassist Reggie Workman.  The result is a set of stretched-out richly improvisational performances, with Hubbard taking a stellar role.  His piece “The Hub” runs 17 minutes, “Crisis” lasts 24 minutes, and Hubbard is also featured on “Blue Moon” which had been his showcase number during his stint with Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the early ‘60s.  But there are a lot of other things happening in this unusual set – among them the always imaginative playing of the still under-appreciated Byard.  The liner essay is by Michael Cuscuna.

Anita O’Day was recorded in Sweden in ’63 and in Norway in ’70.  She was, by almost any definition, at the top of her form in both sets – especially the Swedish performance.  One engrossing performance follows another – two versions of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” scatting with the lyrics on “Tea For Two,” Lennon & McCartney’s “Yesterday” combined with Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays” – all of it presented in readings that sell the song and the lyrics, while simultaneously finding the most intriguing musical phrase.  Bottom line: this is a video that should be required watching for every young jazz singer, as well as every fan of the jazz vocal art.  The liner essay is by Doug Ramsey.

The bonus disc that comes with the boxed set includes additional performances by Coleman Hawkins, Errol Garner and Jimmy Smith.  One of the many highlights is the pairing of Hawkins with alto saxophonist Benny Carter, including a gorgeous rendering of “I Can’t Get Started” by Carter and a revisit to “Body and Soul” by Hawkins.

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