Various Artists: Jazz Icons: Series 2 [DVD]

Chris McCann
Duke Ellington

The interplay between 'the becoming' and 'the became' is the story of jazz, and it's a tale told rapturously in these essential performances.

Various Artists

Jazz Icons: Series 2

Subtitle: Jazz Icons: Series 2
Label: Jazz Icons
US Release Date: 2007-09-04
"Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple." -- Charles Mingus

By the time Charles Mingus launched his two-week European tour in 1964, he'd played with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Art Tatum. He was generally regarded as the finest technical bassist in the world. It was clearly time to try something new.

That's exactly what Mingus did, recruiting Clifford Jordan (tenor sax), Johnny Coles (trumpet), Jaki Byard (piano), Dannie Richmond (drums), and Eric Dolphy (who had been playing with Coltrane and starting his own band) for this short swing through Europe. The results were galvanizing; Mingus introduced two of his most famous compositions -- "Meditations on Integration" and "So Long Eric" -- during this tour, a defining moment in the great bassist's career. The band meshed perfectly, playing with and against each other with such energy and verve that the effect was the transmutation of chaos into order -- paradoxically (Mingus loved his paradoxes) an expansion rather than a contraction.

The second series of Jazz Icons DVDs contains many such watershed moments in the history of America's great art form. This eight-disc series collects seminal performances from some of the most influential artists in jazz history. In addition to Mingus, the series spotlights John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Dexter Gordon, Dave Brubeck, Sarah Vaughan, and Wes Montgomery (a bonus 8th disc contains a sampling of clips not included on the other discs). Most of the sets, which were recorded during the '50s and '60s, were broadcast on European television, but some have never been seen before by the public.

The performances are stunning, and watching them is a revelation. The highlights are myriad: Paul Gonsalves wailing on "Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue"; Wes Montgomery going through a rehearsal with his pianist, Pim Jacobs, tinkering and tinkering until they get it just right; Sarah Vaughan, slightly tentative near the beginning of her career and then again as a mature artist with as commanding a stage presence as anyone; the Duke himself, ever the showman, introducing his band members and then blowing them all off the stage.

"In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country." -- Duke Ellington

The 1956 Newport Jazz Festival provided the stage for Duke Ellington and his band to conquer America. Paul Gonsalves' groundbreaking solo on "Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue" was just one of the highlights of a show that has become legend. Over the next two years, Ellington and his band began supplementing their one-night-stands and barnstorming tours with more performances on TV and radio, which consequently brought their music to a much wider audience. For Ellington and his band, the time was right in 1958 to return to Europe, where they'd last played nearly a decade before. In contrast to Mingus exploding into Europe's consciousness in 1964, Ellington on his '58 tour was royalty, and he behaved as such, a master of ceremonies, a conductor sifting effortlessly through his deep catalog, a maestro in control of every note.

When Duke Ellington mentioned the freedom associated with jazz, he was talking about the expression of the mystery of composition and expression. The way a standard melody like "My Favorite Things" can be transformed under the fingers of John Coltrane into something wild and inventive and passionately individual. It's the essential idea of the American experience, wrapped up in the modernist dictum of Ezra Pound: "Make it new" And that's exactly what you're watching in these sets -- musicians experimenting and innovating, making the old new, and nightly producing sounds that had not been heard before.

The key word is "watching". This series brings the music into the light. Seeing how Brubeck's fingers dance on the keys or Coltrane's on the horn adds another layer of pleasure to the music. I often wondered how those incredible sounds were made, and being able to see Wes Montgomery play "Twisted Blues" in England in 1965 answers (at least partially) that question. There's always going to be a bit of mystery left in the creation and production of jazz; and these DVDs don't take away that mystery, but allow the viewer a better idea of the complexity involved in the making of the music.

"I hope we left you with something to put under your pillows." -- Dexter Gordon

In 1963 and '64, Dexter Gordon was at the peak of his powers. Blue Note had just released his recording with Bud Powell (piano), Pierre Michelot (bass), and Kenny Clarke (drums), Our Man in Paris, and Gordon had become known as a man with both a profound understanding of the technical aspects of music and an appreciation for the mystery involved in creating something new. On these dates in Holland, Switzerland, and Belgium, Gordon looks confident and relaxed, trusting his skills. He often said, "The music is always growing. It's a living, breathing music." And that attitude shows here, as he innovates and inspires, seemingly without breaking a sweat.

Each disc in the series contains between 60 and 90 minutes' worth of material. Some feature one long set, while others cull performances from various shows. There are no extra features on the discs, but each one comes with an illustrated booklet that provides about 20 pages of background material on the artist and critical song-by-song appraisals of the specific performances. In some cases, this material is written by jazz luminaries (Pat Metheny crafts a well-written essay about Wes Montgomery and Dave Brubeck's son pens his), and in others by academics. Without exception, the essays are erudite and engaging, placing these performances in the context of the artists' careers.

And it's the performances that are the thing. It's impossible to list all my favorites, but Sarah Vaughan's ethereal take on "Over the Rainbow"; the unaccompanied version of "West Coast Blues" played by Wes Montgomery; and "Impressions," with Coltrane and Eric Dolphy trading solos, certainly rank high on the list.

Sarah Vaughan
Throughout these sets, there's a constant dialogue between the impermanence that comes as a consequence of improvisation, and a permanence built on the confident vision of these giants of modern jazz. It's a heady feeling, as though you're present at what seems as times to be the birth of something new and at times the enshrining of something perfected. The interplay between 'the becoming' and 'the became' is the story of jazz, and it's a tale told rapturously in these essential performances.





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