Thursday, March 22, 2012

Jazz Icons: Series 5 (Mosaic)

Mosaic Records is best-known for their jazz completist sets, such as “The Complete (name of label) Recordings of (name of artist)”. And they’ve done a tremendous number of these over the years, performing an invaluable service for collectors, historians, libraries, and just-plain jazz lovers. More recently, they’ve turned their attention to the music-video market, taking over the release of the latest in a series of multi-DVD sets under the overall title of “Jazz Icons”, the first four sets of which had been distributed by the Naxos label..

This latest set of six DVD’s, “Jazz Icons: Series 5”, is the first one I’ve seen, but it’s plainly obvious Mosaic has performed another, equally valuable service. It may be an even more valuable service than their audio-CD sets, since most of the music they’ve released in audio form (excepting previously unissued takes) has been previously made available to the public, though generally scattered and in various formats. The music video format, while now a well-established medium, has yet to release many of the treasures which have been filmed and/or broadcast throughout the years. What’s more, many of these treasures have been issued only on the now-disgraced VHS format. (Despite the downturn in DVD sales, I think it may be a while before we can use a similar adjective for the DVD format, since it can be utilized by most computers. I hope I’m not mistaken!)

The first of the six DVD’s comprising this set - each disc has its own case and its own liner notes in a 12-page booklet, but the six are only available together as a boxed set - will doubtless sell the box all by itself. “John Coltrane Live In France: 1965” is a 52-minute black-and-white film recorded at the Antibes Juan-les-Pins Festival, with THE John Coltrane Quartet (McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums). “Naima“ starts out somewhat tentatively, but it begins to flow in an explorative manner once Trane begins to double time.Watching the master working his way in and out of the changes is to see a man lost in his own special world that not even his sideman could enter. From then on, it’s never-look-back, with intense Coltrane solos that reach for the stars while exploring the nether world between inside and outside blowing, probing modal comping and strong solos by Tyner, robust bass work by Garrison, all over relentlessly propulsion by Jones. Garrison’s finest moment is an extended, unaccompanied tour-de-force in between “Ascension” and “Impressions”, in which he strums the bass like a flamenco guitar, as well as plucking and bowing his instrument.

But by far the most important aspect of this disc is that it contains a portion of the one and only live performance of John Coltrane’s masterwork, “A Love Supreme”, which alone makes this worthy of being seen by every living human being who considers him- or herself a music lover. But it’s also the most disappointing aspect of the disc - because, if you’ll read that again, it only has a PORTION of the performance, namely the first twelve minutes of the piece. The original LP version was a four-movement work, but here we have Part 1 (“Acknowledgement”) and a sizable, but incomplete segment of Pt. 2 (”Resolution”). To be sure, this is not something for which Mosaic can be blamed, since the footage of the remaining 2-plus movements simply no longer exists. If ever found, which seems unlikely, it would be a discovery on a par with the mythical Buddy Bolden cylinder. In any case, we must be extremely thankful we have what we have. It strikes me as a surprisingly laid-back and comfortable version of the piece - indeed, Tyner sounds downright playful on Pt. 2. But David Liebman’s liner notes tell us the audio which still exists of the complete performance is highly intense, especially in the third movement. Would we could see it all, but what’s here is well worth savoring, even if it is only partial.
“Thelonious Monk: Live In France 1969” is a completely solo television concert, unhindered by the need to fit in with a band - as if fitting in was ever a major concern of Monk’s. A program of this nature would be hard to imagine on American television during that time period. US t.v. producers like to exert control. But Monk was such an idiosyncratic figure that one never quite knew what to expect from him. And indeed, this set is by no means predictable, which is just what one wants from a Monk performance.

The film opens with a rehearsal sequence. If it weren’t for the sounds of the the t.v. crew setting up. it could pass for an official part of the program. From that point on, it’s all Monk, no extraneous narration or song intros, aside from one point where Monk does make the comment that he doesn’t know what to play. Watching Monk carefully pick notes and chords that defy expectations is watching thought transferred to piano keys. It could ALL be “rehearsal”, it could ALL be “performance”, and is really both at the same time.

There is no differentiating life from art in Monk’s music, especially on the more static, slow-tempoed pieces. On the moderate-tempoed tunes - nothing is really UPtempo - he flirts with the more entertainment-slanted aspect of jazz, calling to mind stride piano and Art Tatum, though without the latter’s dazzle. But he still makes them sound like an intimate party-of-one. “Epistrophy” in particular is refreshingly spare and playful; Monk even conjures up a bright smile at the end of it. Throughout the set, he plays as if no one would ever be listening. Indeed, at one point, he looks up into the camera as if to say, “What are you doing here?”

Since one is never quite certain whether a Monk dissonance is deliberate or a miscue, it’s impossible to criticize any of his playing, aside from the most jarring moments, of which there aren’t many. Just roll with Monk’s flow, and be rewarded. He plays “Monk’s Mood” twice, which I suppose was indeed a reflection of Monk’s mood at the time. There are two ingratiating readings of standards among the Monk originals. The longer the goes on, the more Monk sweats, to the point where one wishes someone had thrown a towel in his direction. But since he doesn’t seem at all comfortable with t.v. cameras trained on him, I doubt any wanted to risk turning his genius off by interrupting him.

The main program runs about 55 minutes, but there are several bonus features which extend the disc by some 10-15 minutes. We see Monk and his beloved wife, Nellie, riding in a car upon arriving in France. The footage is not especially interesting, but it does serve to demonstrate that he was every bit as uncomfortable with a camera in his face offstage as well as on. There is a brief soundcheck which preceded the t.t. performance. But the mosty telling bonus is raw footage of a very awkward attempted interview of Monk by Henri Renaud. The interviewer throws Monk off by asking questions in a mix of French and English. Monk’s confused responses are rather inarticulate, and eventually both Renaud and Monk give up in frustration. But of course, it’s the solo performance you’re buying, not the bonus footage, which you will no doubt not care to watch more than once. A 12-page booklet rounds out the package.
As any true post-bop jazz fan knows, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers had what seemed to be an almost constant turnover in personnel throughout its approximately 35-year career (1954 till the end of the 1980’s). Blakey, who died in 1990 at the age of 71, was the combo’s only constant through the years. Well, no, that’s not really true. Blakey’s unwavering commitment to excellence and his ability to continually discover, mentor, and promote new talent, including many players who would go on to make a difference in the course of jazz history, were also constants.

Blakey’s variety of jazz was known as “hard-bop”, “bop” because it developed out of the rhythmic, compositional, and arranging innovations of bebop, “hard” because of its driving emotional force and its musical influences from blues, gospel, and r&b, styles regarded as the “earthier” genres of African-American music during the 1950’s. To us, today, hard-bop sounds more like what many people consider to the “mainstream” of jazz, meat-and-potatoes jazz, the way it sounded before the various contradictory levels of avant-gardism, commercialization/”smoothing”, and fusion concepts altered the music and its identity. Jazz used to be one thing at a time, now it has become an umbrella term covering many different things. Blakey’s music represents an era when, looking back from the vantage point of 2012, it seems to have been pretty much all-one-thing, even though people didn’t necessarily think so at the time..

The Jazz Messengers seen and heard on the DVD “Live In France 1959” is one of the classic editions of the band, featuring the superb Lee Morgan on trumpet and Wayne Shorter on tenor sax. Morgan would go on to great success as a solo artist (even achieving hit-single status in 1963 wirh his recording, “The Sidewinder”), while Shorter would go on to change the world, during stints with Miles Davis and as co-leader of the pioneering fusion band, Weather Report. Indeed, Shorter is now hailed by some to be jazz’ greatest living composer, Walter Davis, Jr. on piano and Jymie Merritt on bass (Blakey introduces him by pronouncing his first name “Jimmy”; guess I’ve been saying it wrong all my life!) round out the quintet, leaving not a single hole in the process.

There is very little inherently visual about this performance, even when the music sounds as if it’s on fire, which is often. Blakey’s facial expressions and powerhouse arm movements on the drums are as close to a visual element as you’ll find here. Shorter is downright impassive, putting all his emotion into his playing, remaining rod-stiff when playing, and standing statue-like during Morgan’s solos. But then, these men are not faux-hipsters pretending to act cool, they are serious artists and very much aware of that fact. It’s all about the music, and the French audience loves every second of it, as well they should. The.crowd reszponds instantaneously to “No Problem”, played at a barn-burning clip. No doubt they recognize it as Duke Pearson’s theme from the French film “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”, which had only recently been released.

The main program is 82 minutes long. There is an interesting three-minute interview with Blakey, as well an additional partial performance from the concert, “Nellie Bly”, only a brief portion of which still survives, and that is mostly drum solo. The whole concert is a gem.
Johnny Griffin was known as “the Little Giant”, and the name was appropriate for more than just his diminutive stature, He was a giant in terms of imagination, intensity, and technical virtuosity. While he may not have been the sort of innovative force who broke new ground for jazz, his bold, fiery approach to uptempo tunes - Fastest Sax in the West! - and his sensitive ballad style enriched jazz tremendously for several decades.

There are two concerts represented on “Johnny Griffin Live In France 1971”. Both are chock full of creativity and soulfulness. Yes, he could play fast, but these were by no means empty phrases played rapidly to mask a proficiency totally devoid of inspiration, regardless of the speed. The one negative aspect about the first concert presented here (which is actually the later of the two concerts, by seven weeks) is the piano of Vince Benedetti. While he’s a decent enough musician, and probably would fit in nicely with other musicians of like caliber, he simply is not on Griffin’s level. Fortunately, Griffin’s fellow hard-bop expatriate, drummer Art Taylor, an estimable musician with tons of major-name credentials under his belt, is around to take up any slack. The second concert (the earlier of the two) is indeed credited to The Johnny Griffin - Arthur Taylor Quartet, and replaces Benedetti with the far superior Rene Urtreger. Not surprisingly, Taylor gets more solo space on this co-billed concert than on the other. Bass player Alby Cullaz, a French musician little known in the US, but who recorded with such American stars as Hank Mobley, Chet Baker, and Steve Grossman, is a very solid accompanist and a worthwhile soloist as well. The concert with Benedetti finds Dizzy Gillespie making a guest appearance for two songs. While his playing is a bit inconsistent, he seems to inspire Griffin.

Both films are in black-and-white, but the camera work on the earlier film is much more imaginative, with many intriguing angles and moody lighting. Griffin’s theme song, “Blues For Harvey” appears in both segments, first as a quartet tune, the second time as a duet with Taylor. Running time for the two concerts together is an action-packed 77 minutes. No extras, but nice liner notes by Don Sickler in the 12-page booklet.

Freddie Hubbard represents the next generation in jazz, which came to the fore at the end of the 1960’s, rooted in hard-bop, incorporating some of the tonal possibilities and techniques of the 60’s free-jazz revolution (albeit in a manner more palatable to the broader jazz public), and extending the music by introducing the more populist elements of funk rhythms and electric keyboard textures.

“Freddie Hubbard Live In France 1973” gets off to powerhouse start, with Hubbard’s trumpet searing over a strong drum backdrop by Michael Carvin, before “Straight Life” settles into a comfortable groove laid down by bassist Kent Brinkley. Junior Cook bears down on tenor sax, followed by a subtle George Cables solo on electric piano. At less than eight minutes, this is by far the shortest of the three tunes on the disc.

“Intrepid Fox” again opens in a free-jazz vein, before the rhythm section takes us on a sprightly modal ride. Indeed, the three musicians work so tightly that it almost sounds like one mind with six hands. Hubbard’s mastery of his horn and his continually vivid imagination can still bowl a listener over almost 40 years later. Cook approaches his solo with less abandon, more structurally - and one wishes he’s stood a bit closer to the mic - but proceeds to build up to free-jazz screaming emotionalism, before coming down to a somewhat cryptic conclusion. Cables sounds relaxed and melodic in his solo, as Brinkley and Carvin drive the music along. The drummer’s solo is more textural than bombastic, first concentrating primarily on snare fundamentals, mixing in the toms, eventually zoning in on cymbals and kick drum. Someone adds a bit of chanting at one point, as Carvin moves to incorporate his whole kit. The piece lasts about 22 minutes, but it goes by in no time.

The 19-minute “First Light” comes from a different program filmed at the same concert. Once again, we’re given a freely improvised opening, before Cables introduces a Latin-jazz-flavored groove. But this is definitely not easy-listening jazz. Hubbard is all over his trumpet, with some awe-inspiring lines strung together into a coherent solo. Cook switches to flute, which he plays melodically, but without the flair he put into his sax solos. Cables utilizes the sustaining capabilities of the electric piano wisely in his too-brief solo. Hubbard’s restatement of the theme has his most subtle playing of the entire concert.

This is Freddie Hubbard at his artistic peak - brash, brimming in self-confidence, with all the chops and inventiveness needed to back up the swagger, before Creed Taylor’s studio production formula cooled off his fire (at least on records), and before he became too much the showman in live performance (as implied in Neil Tesser’s liner notes in the enclosed booklet).

Only 50 minutes (three songs plus a tag ending), with no extras, but I doubt anyone will go away hungry.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk is no longer considered the major figure he looked as if would become when he was first making his mark as a member of Quincy Jones and Charles Mingus aggregations. Though he virtually defined the term “multi-instrumentalist” with his vast array of familiar (tenor sax, clarinet, flute) and unfamiliar (manzello, stritch, and an assortment of folk and home-made flutes), he was so much the entertainer that many critics came to feel his stage presence overtook his musical legitimacy. ”Live In France 1972” confirms the dominance of the showman in his concert presentations, but it also demonstrates that he was one heck of a superb musician as well.

On this set, he includes a few well-known jazz standards, giving them straightforward interpretations that are refreshingly low on gimmickry, showcasing the skills of a talented band of rhythm players in the process.The opening “Blue Train” is a particularly ingratiating spotlight for the sprightly and tasteful piano of Ron Burton. Bassist Henry Pearson and drummer Richie Goldberg keep things moving nicely, while Kirk’s tenor offers some fine moments before he stretches out a bit too long; self-editing was never one of his strong points. It’s refreshing to watch Kirk apply the time-honored world-folk technique of circular breathing to the tenor sax. which means his phrases never have to pause unless he wants them to. One wonders, though, if this didn’t encourage him to sometimes play a solo longer than he should have.

“Lester Leaps In” is uncommonly calm, and is noteworthy for the way Goldberg plays definite pitches on his tom-toms by blowing air into them through a rubber hose. I would explain further, but I don’t understand it myself! Kirk plays the “Satin Doll” medley on tenor sax and manzello (a variant of the soprano sax) simultaneously, both horns sticking into his mouth at the same time, fingering both at the same time, playing parallel lines and a bit of self-counterpoint. Yes, it’s a gimmick, but one he’s able to pull off with his technical prowess and dexterity. Of the six DVD’s in this box set, this is the one which is most dependent on being seen as well as heard.

The fourth track is entitled “For Bechet and Ellington and Bigard and Carney and Rabbit”. Annotator John Kruth seems to think the term “Rabbit” refers to the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, but from the context it seems far more obvious to me that the reference is to Eliington alto saxist Johnny Hodges, whose nickname was :Rabbit”. Despite the composition being obviously based on Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy”, Kirk’s clarinet solo is very much of the then-modern (1972) era. “My Cherie Amour” strikes me as jazz-lite to the point of flimsiness, but there’s no doubt Kirk knew his way around a flute, both played straight and using his influential multiphonic approach of humming into the instrument while he played. He later switches to an array of small flutes and whistles, including a nose flute (makeshift, not the traditional Hawaiian ohe hano ihu) and something that looks like a type of toy harmonica, but sounds more like a piccolo. “One More Winter/Summer” has some humorous multiphonic flute, plus a driving solo by Burton.

Kirk plays Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High” on the stritch, a cousin of the alto sax. He uses his circular breathing on the awkward-looking horn to play a sheets-of-sound solo, quoting a few familiar tunes (as he does elsewhere in this concert as well), while the rhythm keeps things moving behind him. Kirk remains on stritch for “Soul Eyes”, in which Burton is in peak form, tastefully supported by Pearson. Kirk picks up the tenor and leads into “Volunteered Slavery”, a funk piece featuring a group vocal, as well as the awe-inspiring sight of Kirk playing THREE horns at once (tenor sax, manzello, stritch)., as percussionist Joe Texidor - barely needed through most of the disc - bangs enthusiastically on a tambourine. Kirk’s tenor sax solo may be repetitious to the max, but the longer it goes on, the more effectively it captures the emotions of the moment. The piece ends in a maelstrom of whistles, bass drone, and percussive texture, before seguing into “The Inflated Tear”, which travels between lovely-ballad and noise-exploration.

In all, despite my occasional misgivings as stated above, this is overall an impressive and highly entertaining concert, by a musician whose like we may never see again. The film is in color, quite attractive color at that, despite the packaging’s claim that it is “B&W”. 74 minutes, no extras except for the 12-page booklet.