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January/February 2006

Smithsonian Jazz Masters DVD Series

This budget-line series is drawn from a series of concerts held at the Smithsonian Institute in 1981-82. The artists chosen represent the music's history admirably, from the classic blues of Alberta Hunter through New Orleans and swing styles to various modern approaches, though it would have been nice to see the postmodern era represented.

This edition of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers had Wynton Marsalis as musical director. He dazzles from the first solo of the night, proving time and again that no jazzer has ever played more trumpet. Whether any trumpeter has played more jazz, is, of course, another question and one that remains open.

The ever-winning Benny Carter is up next, heading a quintet that includes two latter-day traditionalists (violinist Joe Kennedy Jr. and drummer Ronnie Bedford) and a couple of modernists (Kenny Barron and George Duvivier). It's good to hear what an excellent bassist Duvivier was, but not at the expense of the overall balance. Apart from that this is a nice enough concert lifted by every solo the leader takes.

Alberta Hunter reveled in her late rediscovery as one of the last of the classic blues divas, and her concert shows how magnetic an entertainer she was. It won't hurt to hint that Hunter's early records were actually lesser examples of the style, but that seems utterly beside the point as we watch this grand old trooper carry on.

The Red Norvo show is a little harder to recommend, despite the vibraphonist's reunion with guitar legend Tal Farlow, who certainly interprets the beat extremely freely at times. Vocalist Mavis Rivers is not going to make anyone forget Mildred Bailey, though the interplay between Rivers and Norvo on "Pennies From Heaven" is a high point.

Though I definitely prefer Art Farmer's early records, watching him at work here with a very interesting group (Fred Hersch, Dennis Irwin, Billy Hart) is a real pleasure. Farmer rises to the challenge presented by these young Turks, constructing his solos with a touch that is truly masterful.

Mel Lewis' Orchestra remained a force even after co-leader Thad Jones' sudden departure in 1978. This video is probably the highlight of the series, featuring three of the great charts of Herbie Hancock originals that were featured on the Live at Montreux album. Solid solos abound but it's the tight ensemble work that carries the day.

Bob Wilbur does a nice job of paying homage to his mentor, Sydney Bechet, but ultimately this concert doesn't really get off the ground. Plenty of good individual efforts don't add up to a greater sum, alas. There's better late Wilbur on CD and LP.

The observation that you must see a musician to really get where they're coming from is certainly true of Joe Williams, whose delivery depends so much on his presence. Backed by a fine piano trio, Williams is the soul of dignity and does just as well with thoughtfully phrased standards as with his trademark blues material.

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