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


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