Sunday, September 4, 2011

“Duke Ellington: Reminiscing In Tempo”/“Count Basie: Then As Now, Count’s The King”/“Dizzy Gillespie In Redondo” (all MVD)

The common factor here is that all three films are the work of filmmaker Gary Keys, whose work is currently undergoing a revival of interest and exposure thanks to the folks at MVD. These are but three of several Keys films recently brought to DVD by MVD.

The Ellington film combines elements of the concert-film genre with documentary. A group of Ellington’s friends, associates, and fans were gathered together for a memorial birthday party by Duke’s sister, Ruth Ellington Boatright. They share reminiscences of Ellington the man, the composer, the pianist, the collaborator. Some, such as Bobby Short, Al Hibbler (who alas was WAY past his prime), Billy Taylor, Brooks Kerr, Hiromi, and Adam Makowicz, offer musical tributes as well.

Keys intersperses this with footage of a 1968 concert done in Mexico by Ellington and his band. Though the concert is from late in Duke’s career, the music is still solid, the re-considered arrangements fresh, and the soloists (who include such Ellington stalwarts as Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, and Cootie Williams, among others) still distinctive.

The highlight of the concert is the rarely-performed “Mexican Suite”, which was never commercially recorded. (It was later expanded into the “Latin-American Suite”, which WAS recorded). The presence of this suite would alone justify purchase of this DVD by the Eliington faithful. While I personally would have preferred that the suite be presented straight, without the travelog photography Keys mixes in, the visuals are fascinating in their own right.

I should mention that a discussion of race relations in America includes a few graphic images which many may find disturbing. Otherwise, this is a very agreeable release, although I wouldn’t recommend it as someone’s first intro to Duke Ellington.

Gary Keys’ Count Basie film is similar in that it juxtaposes footage, recordings, and photos of the band with spoken reminiscences by people who knew Basie well. But whereas the Ellington footage came from a single concert, the Basie film incorporates film and television footage from the 1950’s and later. The Ellington reminiscences came from interviews of a grouping of sophisticates who were all too aware of the camera, but the roundtable discussing Basie is far less formal, displaying a great deal of camaraderie and gentle ribbing, all in good fun.

The participants in the panel include Frank Wess, Frank Foster, Joe Wilder, and Benny Powell, all long-established Basie-ites, trombonist George Lewis (who was briefly in the Basie band in the mod-1970’s; he is mostly context to listen to and learn from the old-timers), and a holdover from the Ellington film, critic Ira Gitler. Gitler is heard so little, one might speculate that his actual role may have been off-camera, feeding ideas to the participants. They talk about Basie the bandleader, the personality, and the musical force. They recall incidents involving some of their fellow classic Basie musicians, and enjoy chatting about their own experiences as members of the Basie entourage. In all, it’s a very enjoyable, one might even say invigorating discussion.

The early Kansas City days are given short shrift in the selection of film clips, though there is a small-combo version of “One O’Clock Jump” from the early 50’s, most likely the earliest fooitage seen here. There are a number of other Basie standards from the 50’s band, such as “Midgets” (with a sprightly Frank Wess flute solo), “Corner Pocket”, and a version of “Li’l Darlin’” which seems to date from the period after Frank Foster took over the band. Billie Holiday is accompanied by Basie on two songs from 1952. We also get to hear from the great singer Joe Williams on “Alright Okay You Win” and “Everyday I Have The Blues” (the latter introduced by Dionne Warwick).

A couple performances might best be termed “Basie-related” - Frank Foster playing with Dizzy Gillespie in the 1980’s, and a clip of the Billy Eckstine big band of the 1940’s, which only becomes Basie-related when we get to hear a later sample of Eckstine and Basie together. There are also three clips which illustrate Basie’s impact on Hollywood. Jerry Lewis mimes to Basie recordings on excerpts from “Cinderfella” and “The Errand Boy”, while Keys was lucky enough to be able to include the incongruous performance of “April In Paris” from “Blazing Saddles”.

Frank Foster offers a lengthy poem (split into segments) on Basie’s life and career. Indeed, Foster is shown to be a “real character”, and is very much the “star” of the panel. In all, this is very entertaining stuff, and can easily be recommended as an introduction to the post-1950 Count Basie Orchestra.

Unlike the Ellington and Basie films, Gary Keys’ Dizzy Gillespie offering is a concert film, apparently part of a t.v. series called “Jazz in America”. I’m not going to beat around the bush - this is one VERY captivating concert film, skillfully assembled.

There are only four full-length performances in this hour-long club date, filmed in 1981. (The fifth title listed, “Jazz America”, heard briefly at the end, would seem to be the series’ theme song.) Even so, it pretty much encapsulates the range of Dizzy’s long-term contributions to the well-being of jazz. Some critics have implied that Gillespie did the great bulk of the innovations one associates with his name during the mid-to-late 1940’s, and that he pretty much coasted the rest of his career - which lasted till around 1990; he died in 1993. I will not argue this point, but innovation is not the only factor that matters. In his mid-60’s, he could still blow up quite a firestorm on this disc, proof positive that he remained an imaginative improviser as well as a first-rate entertainer well into late career.

Dizzy the waggish entertainer gets the proceedings off to a congenial start by “introducing the band”, at which point the musicians shake hands, pretending as if they were meeting for the first time. It may be a standard musicians’ joke, but Diz and the band carry it off so affably, it’s funny again, no matter how often you may have seen it. The band is a top-notch one, so now it’s my turn to “introduce the band”. Alto saxist Paquito D’Rivera burns on the opener, ”Be Bop”, with such assurance, you might think he was one of the originators of the bebop style, rather than a Cuban latecomer. Ed Cherry (misidentified here as “Ed Sherry”) is a deft guitarist who can work his way through a variety of styles with aplomb. Tom Macintosh is a low-key trombonist with a fine sense of rhythmic pacing. Pianist Valerie Capers is aggressive when she needs to be, sensitive when the moment calls for it. There are two bass players, each of whom has a well-defined role. Ray Brown, on stand-up acoustic bass, was born to play with Dizzy Gillespie, while electric bassist Michael Howell, is featured on the more contemporary, funk-flavored tunes. Drummer Tom Campbell, I confess, is a new name to me, though a quick Google search reveals he has solid credentials. In any event, he easily holds his own in this august company.

The repertoire includes not only fiery bop (“Be Bop”) and cooler bop (“Birks Works”), but funk (“Kush”) as well. But the piece de resistance may be a down-and-dirty blues, identified as “Dizzy’s Made Up Blues” on the DVD carton, and “Hard Of Hearing Mama” in the film itself. Both titles are apropos. The lyrics are blissfully off-the-wall in an Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson sort of way. Macintosh’s solo could have been somewhat nastier in this context. Cherry’s solo starts out well, but he loses himself in repetition. Howell, though, pulls things back together with a blues-guitar-like bass solo, while Capers’ piano solo makes far better use of repitition and rolling blues riffs. In all, a highly entertaining performance, Cherry’s stumble notwithstanding.

Anyone other than a musical curmudgeon should find much to delight in on this disc.

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