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April 2008

Norman Granz Presents Improvisation

When the footage of Charlie Parker on the “Gjon Mili Studio Sequence” from 1950 first appeared as a video in 1996 it was like discovering the Holy Grail of jazz. Now that infamous footage is finally being reissued in a more complete format, with a lot of accompanying material from Norman Granz’s stockpile of jazz movies, in this two-disc set.

Granz and photographer Mili had made the acclaimed movie short Jammin’ the Blues in 1944 (it was nominated for but did not win an Academy Award) and got together again in 1950 to make a sequel. Because the music was recorded earlier and synchronized with the (silent) filming of the musicians playing it, the project floundered because of technical difficulties and was never completed. But now we have all the takes that were synced, and they include two Parker performances—one on a ballad with Coleman Hawkins, the other on an uptempo number with just the rhythm section of Hank Jones, piano; Ray Brown, bass; and Buddy Rich, drums. Parker is seen playing, digging Hawk and Rich, smiling and smoking a cigarette. It’s definitely the most varied and complete visual picture of Bird in motion ever captured. The Mili sequence goes on to include “Pennies From Heaven” featuring the same rhythm section, with tenor saxophonist Lester Young and trombonist Bill Harris. Then Ella Fitzgerald, trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison and tenor Flip Phillips join the group for a climactic blues.

After that it’s off to the Côte D’Azur to a garden full of Juan Miro sculptures (and Miro himself) for Duke Ellington’s trio creation of “Blues for Juan Miro.” Next stop, the Montreux Jazz Festival for Count Basie, first in a rare trio number, then joined in a jam by trombonists Vic Dickinson and Al Grey, saxophonists Benny Carter and Zoot Sims, and Roy Eldridge singing the blues as well as playing trumpet. There are also solo performances from guitarist Joe Pass, Ella Fitzgerald singing a pair of Ellington songs with her trio, and a high-energy Oscar Peterson Trio jam with trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry and tenor saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.

The second disc contains silent extra takes and rushes from the Mili sessions, still photos from the sessions, and fascinating interviews about those sessions and especially about Charlie Parker by Jay McShann, Phil Woods, Ira Gitler, James Moody, Slide Hampton, Roy Haynes and Jimmy Heath. Nat Hentoff delivers a spoken portrait of Granz and the disc closes with that paradigm of jazz movie shorts, Jammin’ the Blues. This is a jazz DVD set that belongs in every collection.

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