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

John Kelman By

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Jazz IconsVarious Artists
Jazz Icons Series 2 Box Set
Reelin' in the Years

While the advent of the DVD has resulted in the unearthing of a virtual treasure trove of archival live video performances, many available for the first time in any format, the quality can often be hit-and-miss. Not so with the Jazz Icons series of DVDs, the first series hitting the streets in 2006. It's been written that this outstanding series of live performances by legendary jazz artists is to jazz what the renowned Criterion Collection has been to film in terms of quality and packaging, and that's no hyperbole. While there are occasional glimpses of the limitations of these DVD's original sources, what made the release of Series 1 such an event was the relatively pristine quality of the video and the rich, full-frequencied audio.

While the first series of nine DVDs, featuring Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Buddy Rich, Count Basie, Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Quincy Jones and Thelonious Monk, was collected into a box set after the individual discs were released, there was nothing added to compel the avid fan to consider the entire collection. Series 2 changes that by including, in addition to outstanding discs featuring John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Dexter Gordon, Wes Montgomery and Charles Mingus, a bonus disc with forty minutes of previously unseen performances by Coltrane in 1962, Gordon in 1964, Brubeck in 1964 and Vaughan in 1967. It may not be enough to change some from cherry-picking among the discs that interest them, but for the completist or ardent fan it's certainly a strong carrot.

With running times ranging from 65 minutes to two hours, extensive booklets written by musicians like Pat Metheny, archivists including Ashley Kahn, or family members such as Darius Brubeck and Sue Mingus, who go into exhaustive detail about the shows presented, not to mention the inclusion of heretofore unseen footage, there's almost too much of a good thing to do justice by it within the scope of this review. While every disc has something to please fans of a particular artist, some discs are of undeniable historic importance, regardless of a consumer's tastes or personal preferences.

Jazz Icons / Wes MontgomeryWes Montgomery
Live in '65
Reelin' in the Years

While there's no shortage of recorded material by Wes Montgomery—one jazz's most enduringly influential guitarists despite a relatively brief career cut tragically short by his death in 1968 at the age of forty-three- -this 78-minute, monaural recording captures Montgomery during three European performances in Holland, Belgium and England in 1965. It was a watershed period for Montgomery, coming out of a longstanding contract with Riverside and about to head into a period that some consider something of a commercial sell- out, despite his playing arguably reaching new heights.

Each performance features Montgomery with a different band, with only one of them featuring the musicians—pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Arthur Harper and drummer Jimmy Lovelace—he brought from the US and who accompanied him on most of his European dates that year. The other two bands are of worthy note, although the UK group with pianist Stan Tracey, drummer Jackie Dougan and a pre-Mahavishnu Orchestra Rick Laird on acoustic bass plays it a tad on the safe side, even for Montgomery's in-the-middle mainstream focus.

Montgomery's Dutch band and its performance contains, perhaps, the DVD's best footage for two reasons. First, while brothers Pim (piano) and Ruud (bass) Jacobs are no slouches, there's an opportunity to see a very young Han Bennink on drums, playing in a completely straight-ahead manner, before he'd established his reputation as one of the founding fathers of the "New Dutch Swing." Second, some rehearsal footage, with Montgomery walking the group through "The End of a Love Affair," lays waste to the myth that Montgomery, a self-taught musician, had no technical knowledge. Self-taught needn't imply uneducated, and here Montgomery makes it clear that his understanding of harmony and changes was not compromised just because he'd not undergone a formal education.

Montgomery's performances are spellbinding throughout. While John Abercrombie has, in the past decade, picked up the mantle of Montgomery as a guitarist playing solely with his thumb, watching Montgomery's single opposable digit execute lines at a near-impossible speed is a revelation. And while the Dutch and Belgian shows are looser and more relaxed than the UK show, all three affirm Montgomery's remarkable imagination and invention.

Jazz Icons / Charles MingusCharles Mingus
Live in '64
Reelin' in the Years

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.

While "On Green Dolphin Street," "Walkin'" and "The Theme" will be familiar tunes to fans of pre- Seven Steps to Heaven Miles, Coltrane's performance is nothing short of remarkable. Endless invention abounds, even in the more straight-ahead (but no less impressive) context of his band mates. While the Coltrane of 1960 was a considerably more inside Coltrane than the adventurous player of even a year later, he seems ready at this time to expand on his new freedom were it not for the restrictions of a television recording session.

As was common at the time, the Coltrane session finishes with two pieces that include his JATP tour mates and reveal, once again, just how progressive Coltrane already was. Getz joins Coltrane, Kelly, Chambers and Cobb for a ballad medley and, while Getz's reputation was certainly well-established by that time, hearing him play next to Coltrane also reveals how relatively conservative he was. Possessing a warm, almost silken tone when compared to Coltrane's sharper and drier sound, he may have garnered success due to his accessibility, but when the two play in tandem, his shortcomings, especially harmonically, will become obvious to many viewers.

The contrast is even more apparent when Kelly relinquishes the piano seat to Peterson, who joins the others for an up-tempo take of Thelonious Monk's "Hackensack." While Peterson's virtuosity and assertive stance fit in perfectly, once again Getz is left in the dust—even more so when Coltrane lets loose a blistering solo with a bluesy edge that Getz on this occasion simply can't match. Getz is no slouch, but he sounds comparatively predictable and, again, when the two tenors play in tandem, is overshadowed by Coltrane's sheer power.

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