Woody Herman: Blue Flame - Portrait Of A Jazz Legend

Dan Bilawsky By

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Woody Herman

Blue Flame: Portrait Of A Jazz Legend

Jazzed Media


Innovation and boundary pushing is often seen as a young man's game, so the obvious question is, how did clarinetist/saxophonist/vocalist/bandleader extraordinaire Woody Herman manage to keep things fresh for virtually his entire half-century run? The answer is so simple that it almost belongs in the common sense category: Herman continued to tap young musicians to shape his groups' sound from the time of "The Band That Plays The Blues" in the late 1930s and early 1940s through his fusion-y "Thundering Herd" in the 1970s, and beyond. This is only one element of his genius that's discussed in this near-indispensable documentary DVD, but it's an important one to note. Other band leaders may have had more fame, long term financial success and/or greater recognition with the general public, but virtually no other figure-fronted big band grew and evolved as much over the years.

The various Herman Herds and the men who made them what they were are discussed in detail during this winning video. Jazz historians Dr. Herb Wong and Dan Morgenstern, and Herman alumni like drummer Jeff Hamilton, saxophonist Frank Tiberi, vibraphonist Terry Gibbs and trombonist Phil Wilson interpolate their thoughts on Herman, his music and his legacy amid various musical performances. They mark him as a humanist, open thinker, "Road Father" and musical salesman; simply one of the greatest men to ever lead a big band.

Herman's entire life is covered in great detail over the course of this 110-minute production. Discussions of his Catholic school years, child vaudevillian star phase, and stints with Tom Gerun and Isham Jones serve as a preview for the lengthy looks at all of Herman's various bands that followed. His love of Johnny Hodges' saxophone work and Duke Ellington, the musician-stealing draft, and the success of "Woodchopper's Ball" are mentioned in the section covering "The Band That Plays The Blues," which kicks off the Herman-as-leader show.

From that point onward, personnel comes to play an important part in defining Herman's bands. The importance of drummer Dave Tough, comedian bassist Chubby Jackson and Superman trumpeter Pete Candoli are noted when the "First Herd" is discussed and the saxophones of the "Second Herd"—a.k.a. "The Four Brothers Band"—are obviously the focus there. Trombonist Carl Fontana gets his due when attention turns toward the "Third Herd," and trumpeter Bill Chase, saxophonist Sal Nistico and pianist Nat Pierce get what they deserve when the focus shifts to the hard driving "Swingin' Herd." Numerous other important Herman associates, like drummers Sonny Igoe and Jake Hanna, and pianist Alan Broadbent are discussed in their proper place.

While the chronological discussions of Herman's groups and the importance of the man himself is central to this presentation, the man was all about the music and plenty of it shows up in complete or partial performance clips. "Four Brothers," "Down Under," "I've Got News For You," "Keen And Peachy," "Lemon Drop," "The Preacher," "Caldonia," "Woody's Boogaloo," "Early Autumn," "Giant Steps" and more are included herein.

Producer and Director Graham Carter did an outstanding job assembling a film that covers Herman from all angles. Longtime Herman fans and those new to his music alike will get a firm education on the man and his life's work through this attention-deserving DVD.

Production Notes: Producer/Director: Graham Carter; Cover Photo: William P. Gottlieb; Package Design: Ink Lounge Creative.

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