11/27/11

DVD Review: 'Jazz Icons 5' Boxed Set

Coltrane, Blakey, Hubbard, Monk, Kirk and Griffin in sizzling historic performances

By contemporary standards, the film of John Coltrane performing at the Antibes Jazz Festival in France in July 1965 is subpar: black and white, slightly out of focus, amateurish camera angles. The average kid toying with his smartphone can post a higher quality video on YouTube.

But the hell with contemporary standards. What jazz fan would not be riveted by Coltrane and his classic quartet—Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison—in their only known public performance of “A Love Supreme,” Coltrane’s masterpiece? Before they get to it—the group saved the suite for last—the quartet is already on fire, offering thrilling run-throughs of “Naima,” “Ascension” and “Impressions,” three pieces that show how far they’d traveled in their five years together. Coltrane, eyes shut and seemingly possessed, his body rocking back and forth, is in the zone, reaching upward and outward, leaving convention far behind. In an extended sequence during “Ascension,” the camera darts from close-ups of Coltrane’s sweaty, pained face to his hands, his fingers a blur as his solo accelerates. Although we only catch the occasional glimpse of the others in the band—thankfully, the cameras do allow us to watch Garrison’s spellbinding arco intro to “Impressions”—they are right there with him all along.

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Freddie Hubbard
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Johnny Griffin
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John Coltrane [photo credit: Roy Thompson]
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Thelonious Monk
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Jazz Icons 5

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Although the packaging informs us that “A Love Supreme” is next (and we've heard the set on CDs already), it’s still something of a jolt to hear the familiar theme unfold in a concert setting. Could they possibly match or surpass the iconic recorded version onstage? Absolutely, and Coltrane has already taken the work to another place in the several months since the group recorded it. The Antibes rendition unfolds steadily and deliberately, not hurriedly; there’s an ease to it at first, Trane and the group giving themselves enough time to see where else this music might go. When he takes off on his first serious solo, a few minutes in, Coltrane delivers the kind of unearthly upper-register volley that still levels the playing field today. Ethereal, sensual, enveloping, this is Coltrane at his most spontaneous and surprising. Pt. 1 seamlessly slips into Pt. 2—Tyner demonstrates his own genius during his lengthy solo—and as the credits sadly come up we’re reminded again why “A Love Supreme” is a benchmark.

The Coltrane performance is only one of six DVDs—each filmed in France—in the climactic fifth volume of Jazz Icons, a consistently worthwhile series of vintage jazz concert footage released by Mosaic Records (a producer of lavishly packaged CD boxed sets), in conjunction with Reelin’ in the Years Productions. The series had been presumed dead until Mosaic—thanks to its new relationship with the French Institut National de l’Audiovisuel—took it on and reactivated it, uncovering the performances that comprise this set (and hopefully more to come).

Each performance in the new box has much to say about the state of the art in the second half of the 20th century, but a couple of the others are particular standouts. Thelonious Monk, in 1969, is captured in a solo set—sans audience—in a TV studio. Following a brief rehearsal surrounded by tech crew, Monk, filmed from behind so that his hands are clearly visible, begins with an introspective “Monk’s Mood” that eschews his more flamboyant side while emphasizing the virtuosity. As his set progresses, Monk becomes more playful and daring—he treats the back-to-back “Epistrophy” and “’Round Midnight” as open books, taking liberties with their melodies, and reaches a glory state on “Ugly Beauty,” which follows. Toward the end, Monk’s simply having fun with it—“Nice Work If You Can Get It” gives him a chance to have his way with the blues and leads into the intriguing, if not entirely necessary, bonus material (interviews, backstage time-killing, etc.).

The other vital piece in the boxed set is the Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers entry, from 1959, filmed in front of an audience. The Messengers were introducing a new member at the time, a young saxophone player named Wayne Shorter, who wastes no time earning his keep in the opening number, “Are You Real?” Shorter figures prominently throughout the set, as does the other marquee name, trumpeter Lee Morgan. Walter Davis was also new, on piano, and Jymie Merritt handled bass duties. Blakey was a democratic bandleader who always showcased his chosen accompanists, but it wouldn’t be a Jazz Messengers show unless Blakey lit out on drums, and his first solo, about a half-hour into the 80-minute program, reaffirms why he is still considered one of jazz’s most influential timekeepers. “A Night in Tunisia” closes the program—Blakey opens with a wailing solo, his bandmates helping out with hand percussion—and it’s worth the wait to watch Morgan and Shorter duel it out fiercely.

The other three discs all date from the 1970s. Tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin’s disc includes two different sets from the summer of 1971 (although the back cover mistakenly says it’s from 1965 and the inside booklet insists it’s ’72), one live and one studio. Fleshing out the quartet in that live half is Dizzy Gillespie, who is content to function as a guest on “A Night in Tunisia” and “Hot House,” taking his solos but mostly ceding the spotlight to Griffin and the others (including Art Taylor on drums).

Rahsaan Roland Kirk and his Vibration Society are heard in the Grand Palais, a museum, in the spring of ’72, the leader characteristically switching off between tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet and other instruments, often—as was his wont—playing more than one simultaneously. Kirk’s set is a mash-up, running the gamut from Ellington’s “Satin Doll” and Trane’s “Blue Train” to Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour,” which Kirk gives a light, semi-samba treatment before the band drops off and leaves him to his armload of flutes and whistles. Wrapping with the title tracks from his 1969 Volunteered Slavery album and the previous year’s The Inflated Tear, Kirk exhibits both the depth of his compositional skills and the mystery of his singular approach to live performance.

Freddie Hubbard, in 1973, was coming off a trio of his greatest albums: Red Clay, First Light and Straight Life. The title tracks from those last two make up two-thirds of his Parisian set and the trumpeter is in peak form, bolstered by a superb complement of players: tenor saxophonist/flutist Junior Cook, electric pianist George Cables, bassist Kent Brinkley and drummer Michael Carvin. “First Light,” in particular, finds the quintet stretching, and while the video and audio quality are, again, hardly HD, the music more than makes up for any shortcomings in the presentation.

Whether or not Jazz Icons continues or has run out of source material worth releasing, the series—which now includes 36 titles featuring everyone from Louis Armstrong to Mingus, Sonny Rollins to Nina Simone—is as vital a library of jazz visuals as has ever been made available to the public.

For more information and to order, visit Jazz icons.

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