Les Paul (1915-2009) wore a whole lot of hats during his very productive 94 years on this planet. In the 1930’s, he was country guitarist/singer/radio personality Rhubarb Red, and accompanied blues singers on the side. He began to play jazz under the influence of Django Reinhardt, formed a trio which included Jim Atkins (thus becoming a crucial influence on Jim’s kid brother, Chet), and played with the Fred Waring aggregation. And that was just the 1930’s.
The 1940’s found him accompanying Bing Crosby (a role filled a generation earlier by the great Eddie Lang), developing the solid-body electric guitar, as well as beginning his investigation of the possibilities of the tape recorder. His technical innovations included overdubbing, multi-tracking at multiple speeds, delay effects, and more. Slowed for a substantial period following an auto accident which caused him to request that his arm be set permanently in guitar-playing position, he had time to think up even more ideas for the 1950’s.
As a result, the ‘50’s would prove to be the apex of Les Paul’s popularity, as he developed an entirely new approach to making pop vocal-and-guitar records with his then-wife Colleen Summers, a/k/a Mary Ford. Employing most of the techniques he’d invented up to this point, the duo of Les Paul and Mary Ford had a number of huge-selling records, as well as their own syndicated five-minute t.v. series. Mary Ford had become sick of the couple’s touring schedule, the pressures of which led to the couple’s divorce and Paul’s semi-retirement. If that had been the last anyone ever heard of Les Paul, he would still be lionized as one of the most influential pop-music innovators of the 20th-century. But he wasn’t done yet.
In the mid-1970’s, Paul returned briefly to the spotlight to record two LP’s with Chet Atkins, which made a whole new generation (and, eventually, a couple subsequent ones) aware of who this man was and why he was important. After yet another decade out of the spotlight, Les Paul made his return to public performance. This brings us to the Last Act of his career, which is the subject of his “Live in New York” DVD. I have gone through the bother of sketching, in however incomplete a manner, the background of Paul’s amazing career arc, in part because this disc not only captures him in live performance, it attempts in spots to fill something of a documentary function. One of the few very minor failings of the disc is that it tends to assume that viewers are already familiar with most of the things the man had done in the past. They are discussed, but perhaps not explained to newcomers as thoroughly as they might be. To be sure, there are other Les Paul discs that ARE intended to be full-blown documentaries, so viewers who want to learn more after enjoying this DVD may turn to these for a more comprehensive look at his long life and career.
This is, as I say, only a minor quibble, because the focus of “Live In New York” is the late-period Les Paul, master guitarist and slightly risque entertainer, who spent what would have been the declining years for the average musician playing for listening and jamming every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York. The particular Monday at the Iridium captured here is a very special one, Les Paul’s 90th birthday party, in 2005. Les was working alongside a top-notch backing combo (the members of which are given the opportunity to shine in their own right), dazzling audiences with his signature runs, ear-catching fills, and revamped arrangements which kept old favorite tunes fresh and continually interesting, not just for himself but for his listeners as well. He peppers the evening with slightly salty (but certainly not filthy) jokes and repartee. He brings to the stage a few lesser-known artists who apparently made regular appearances in the Les Paul jam session context, jazz singer Sonya Hensley, jazz violinist Christian Howes, and tap dancer Andrew Nemr. It’s good to see these worthwhile, yet not-quite-celebrity performers given a chance to be seen on this DVD alongside a fine assortment of more famous artists.
The top-name artists who get their chance to play with Les and the combo include David Grisman, Tommy Emmanuel, Jose Feliciano, Keith Richards (returning to his blues roots, as does Les in their duet), plus an extended turn by Les Paul’s godson, Steve Miller (who knew?). Given the informality of the situation, one should not be surprised when one hears an occasional off-kilter note, but there isn’t a slipshod performance in the lot. Indeed, there is a lot of inspiration, a lot of instrumental expertise, and a lot of fun on display throughout the entire jam session/party. I can’t imagine anyone viewing this disc with a sour expression on their face.
The Bonus Features are uniformly fine. “Thoughts on Les” (also filmed in 2005; in other words, they’re not memorial tributes) has a number of notables - Bonnie Raitt, Emmanuel, Bucky Pizzarelli, Tony Bennett, Steve Miller - speaking individually about Les Paul, the man and the musician, how they first encountered him, and what his accomplishments mean to them. We are also treated to an example of the 5-minute Les Paul and Mary Ford t.v. show, as they engage in some uncomfortably-delivered and awkwardly-scripted domestic dialogue before lip-and-hand-synching to “The World Is Waiting For the Sunrise”; an interview with the sound editor of the original shows; a Soundie of the Les Paul Trio (pre-Mary) doing a swinging version of “Dark Eyes”, marred by an unnecessary comic vocalist; and a very humorous appearance on the old “Omnibus” program, in which they are interviewed tongue-in-cheek by the very droll Alistair Cooke.
In all, when you combine the main feature and the Bonus clips, there are two jam-packed (pun partially intended) hours of first-class entertainment here. Sound and picture quality of the DVD are fine, but the Blu-Ray version is a mind-blowing experience. (I should point out that this is my very first Blu-Ray experience, and I am suitably impressed!) Whether you opt to buy the DVD or the two-disc Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy deluxe version, you will not be disappointed.