The Complete Jazz Casual Series

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The Complete Jazz Casual Series

Various Artists

Efor Films

2004

If Ken Burns' 10-disc "Jazz" is a freshman lecture, this is a senior recital.

All 28 episodes from America's first television jazz series are featured in the eight-DVD boxed set The Complete Jazz Casual Series, where a huge number of legendary musicians such as John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie displayed their prowess between 1961 to 1968. Whereas Burns' series is slick and sometimes droning, Jazz Casual is raw and immensely more enjoyable—but marred by basic production gaffes that cause extra frustration because they are so easily correctable.

Jazz instructor, columnist and Rolling Stone magazine cofounder Ralph Gleason hosted the half-hour programs for the U.S. National Education Television Network. The black-and-white shows are prototypical public television of the era—bare-bones stages, basic camera shots, mediocre audio and a stuffy overall atmosphere. But the lack of gloss is mostly a plus, as there's nothing to supply entertainment beyond the musicians who were given complete freedom to perform however they so chose—and without excessive intrusion most play superbly.

Viewers might not see B.B. King at the top of his game interacting with an adoring audience or Paul Winter playing the best solos of his career with his sextet, but there's almost never a sense any player is mailing it in. The only oddity is wondering if they failed to keep the studio cool enough—a lot of musicians are sweating. In many ways it triggers memories of David Sanborn's vastly underappreciated "Night Music" (another show in dire need of reissue), although it lacks the open jams between guest performers that highlighted the late 1980s series.

There's no way to hit all the highlights or ridicule the lesser moments in the space available here, but among the noteworthy moments: Count Basie's lighthearted improvised set, beginning with a tune he shrugs off during an interview as "I Don't Know" (by the way, he and Gleason are both smoking during their rather casual chat—all kinds of bits like this add a feeling of priceless nostalgia); Coltrane playing with near-peak fire on "Afro Blue" and "Impressions" with his legendary quartet, especially drummer Elvin Jones, contributing mightily to the intensity (and usual lack of "beauty"); and simply watching legends such as Jim Hall, Vince Guaraldi and Carman McRae performing without pretensions of celebrity at or near the height of their talent.

Among the misses: A 1963 interview with Louis Armstrong where past songs are played as historic photos are shown and he then comments, which offers a few interesting nuggets but little energy and a too-reverential approach from Gleason. Woody Herman And His Swingin' Herd are decent, but not worth three appearances—the most of any performer—which takes up an entire DVD.

Gleason keeps a generally low profile on most shows, providing a brief introduction to the players and short interviews (there's no "set" format, obviously part of the musicians determining how they want to use their time). His questions usually are basic but not banal, such as asking Sonny Rollins if he thinks about reinterpreting music he's listening to and if frequently performed pieces change structure during different performances (abbreviated answers: sort of and not really since the structures have lots of room to roam).

Sometimes it's a bit contentious, such as when he and Mel Torme get into a relatively extended discussion about whether he's a true jazz singer. Torme's overview of history and defense of himself certainly makes watching his performance more interesting—I'm not a fan, but he's convincing doing things like blues scat on "Dat Dere." Occasionally Gleason's a bit tentative and doesn't get much from the musicians, but it's much more humane and watchable than modern interviewers who fawn, attack and dominate airtime making long statements with no real questions attached.

There's a few annoying moments, such as cutaways to Gleason during some extended solos to tell us we're listening to a solo. The shows appear to be grouped arbitrarily instead of chronologically or any other apparent order, keeping viewers from observing the progression of jazz during the decade. There are also some abrupt endings as show lengths clash with musicians playing without excessive concern for time, which actually is less irritating than compromising performances.

Inexcusable, however, are the production problems. First and foremost is the lack of a continuous play option—viewers have to navigate through at least two menus for each episode, so there's no chance of inserting a disc and walking away for a couple of hours. Almost equally bad are inconsistent volume levels between episodes; the original shows no doubt had to deal with imperfect technology and the wide range of performers, but basic engineering during the remastering process would have solved it for the DVDs.

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