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DVD/Video/Film Reviews

Jazz Icons Series 2 Set: Wes, Mingus, Coltrane, Dexter, Duke, Brubeck and More.

By Published: December 10, 2007
The longest of the DVDs at two hours, this series of three performances by Charles Mingus in Belgium, Norway and Sweden in 1964 captures the ever-mercurial bassist with a relatively consistent line-up, and proves the value of bringing a band on tour as opposed to using pick-up bands. Of course the music that Mingus wrote and/or arranged was challenging enough for his regular band mates; attempting to use different musicians throughout a tour would have been nearly impossible.

Mingus's band at this point—woodwind multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy (who was an on-again/off-again member of Mingus' groups and would pass away all too young like Montgomery, at the age of thirty-six, just two months after these recordings), tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, pianist Jaki Byard, drummer Dannie Richmond and trumpeter Johnny Coles (who took ill during the group's Paris show, was unable to complete the tour and, consequently, is not seen at the Belgium performance here)—was among the best, if not the best of his career, and one of the first things noticeable is how close together this group performed onstage. While many groups prefer to stay close to ensure proper eye contact, even on the largest of stages Mingus' group seemed to be nearly sitting on top of each other. It's a lesson in group dynamics and interaction that can't be heard; it needs to be seen.

Despite Mingus' reputation for being a moody band leader, what's especially apparent on all three performances here is how much fun everyone appears to be having, the bassist included. When Byard gets a solo spot during the Norway show and dives into some serious stride playing, complete with his own vocalizing that seems like his inner self egging his outer self on, Mingus can be seen, eyes glued on Byard, clearly loving every minute. It's also a revelation to watch Jordan and Dolphy together: the former, a player not incapable of taking things outside, staying closer to the center on a fairly reverent version of the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn classic "Take the 'A' Train"; the latter, a more experimentally minded player who takes every opportunity to explore where even the most conventional of contexts could lead.

More than just a series of fine performances of largely Mingus-penned music, these shows also reveal Mingus and the group are forced to reallocate Coles' parts (with Byard the willing but challenged recipient of the task) for the Belgium show) and present candid rehearsal footage for the Sweden performance. While Wes Montgomery was no less in control of the situation in the performance footage on his DVD, and while there's no mistaking the respect Mingus had for his band mates, with Mingus there's never a question as to who's in the driver's seat, and at all times. That said, even with a small group Mingus creates challenging and orchestrally minded contexts, and while there's plenty of outstanding soloing throughout, the ensemble sound manages to be both tightly played yet extemporaneously loose in feel at the same time—a hallmark of the bassist's unique approach.

Another defining characteristic of these performances—and Mingus' groups from his earliest Jazz Workshop days to his death in 1979—is Richmond, who had a busy schedule outside of Mingus' groups but whose ability to be more than a timekeeper while never neglecting that role made him absolutely essential to Mingus' loose/tight aesthetic. It's easy, four decades after his passing, to forget how innovative Mingus was in establishing the bass as an equal melodic partner on the bandstand. While this DVD can't possibly capture the entire breadth of Mingus' work (no single DVD could), it's as strong a representation of his importance as composer, arranger, bassist, bandleader and overall musical conceptualist as one will likely ever find.

Jazz Icons / John ColtraneJohn Coltrane
Live in '60, '61 & '65
Reelin' in the Years

Dolphy is also represented on a 95-minute DVD that captures three performances of saxophone icon John Coltrane at three separate points in his career. In the same way that the Mingus set provides a comprehensive record, these three performances from Germany in 1960 and 1961, and Belgium in 1965 demonstrate just how quickly Coltrane assumed a leadership role.

The 1960 performance came about as the result of an escape clause in Miles Davis' European contracts, which allowed him to back out of television tapings at will. Touring with his group of the time, featuring pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb and Coltrane—who had previously left the trumpeter but rejoined the group briefly—Miles was part of impresario Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic tour with the Stan Getz Quartet and Oscar Peterson Trio. So, when Miles pulled out, Coltrane stepped in for a set that, at least for its first half, consisted of standards that were part of Miles' concert repertoire at the time.

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