DVD Review: Various Artists—Jazz Icons Box, Series Four (Reelin’ in the Years/Naxos)

Still More Jazz Icons
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Anyone who’s been reading this column regularly over the past few years knows that I’m a huge fan of Reelin’ in the Years Productions’ Jazz Icons series of DVDs, plucked from rare, unseen and forgotten European television broadcasts from the late ’50s to the very early ’70s. You see, in Europe, people actually revere American jazz—always have—and they treated it seriously by according them respect, paying musicians decent wages for gigs and also by airing concerts on television. Can you imagine such a thing? Okay, I’m a little bitter that the U.S. has never given jazz (or blues) its due. But Jazz Icons has proven to be an amazing treasure trove of great music, and this latest box set of eight discs covering seven different artists (plus a Bonus Disc compilation of other material by three of them) is certainly up to the very high standards established by the first three collections. Each DVD is also sold separately, too, except for the Bonus Disc, but serious collectors will definitely want to pick up the box. Visuals (all black and white this time) and audio are both excellent, by and large. Each disc also contains a meaty booklet packed with photos and informative essays that helpfully put the music in historical context. I’ve learned a ton just reading the booklets while I watch/listen.

Six of the seven artists are new to the Jazz Icons Series—the exception is Art Blakey, who was first captured in the 2006 series with a fine 1958 concert featuring the Jazz Messengers lineup with Benny Golson and Lee Morgan, but here he is in top form in 1965 leading a stellar quintet that includes the great Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Nathan Davis on sax and pianist Jaki Byard. Hubbard is the main attraction here, as he moves effortlessly from rich balladic playing, as on “Blue Moon,” to exciting post-bop reveries. His own tune “Crisis” is a real standout, sprawling to more than 20 minutes.

Another trumpeter who has been somewhat overlooked (and let’s face it, except for Miles, just about every trumpeter has been) is Art Farmer, captured here in England in 1964 playing flugelhorn in a quartet with guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Pete LaRoca on a diverse set of tunes, from the gorgeous “Sometime Ago” to a speedy version of Kurt Weill’s “Bilbao Song,” to the MJQ standard “Bags’ Groove.” Here’s a band that is definitely in sync. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of jazz guitar (an exception is Charlie Christian), but I was really impressed by Hall on this disc.

The intimacy of that date is quite a contrast to the disc featuring Woody Herman and His Swinging Herd in England in 1964—a brassy, muscular band with five trumpets, four saxes, three trombones, piano, bass, drums and, best of all, Herman on clarinet. Though much of this has the character of the classic Big Bands of the ’40s, the repertoire is definitely updated, including tunes by Horace Silver and Charles Mingus. Generally speaking, I prefer the group’s quieter moments to the full-on assaults, but that’s just a personal prejudice; playing fast or slow these guys can definitely blow.

Coleman Hawkins was one of the most influential saxophonists of the pre-WWII era, as imaginative as he was technically adept, full of heart and passion. By the early ’60s, he had been eclipsed by a new generation of players in the eyes of some, but as evidenced by the more than two hours of music here from concerts in Belgium in 1962 and England in 1964, he was still in good form. Particularly sparkling on the ’62 date is Hawkins’ own “Disorder at the Border” and the supremely lyrical “Moonlight in Vermont.” George Arvanitas is his fine piano foil in the first grouping. Two years later, we find Hawkins sharing the front line with trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison (of Basie fame) and his presence necessarily changes the vibe of the date somewhat—but in a good way. “Disorder at the Border” gets another workout, but otherwise it’s a different set of tunes, including a couple of well-constructed medleys of standards. I particularly like the first, with “Lover Man” (a quartet featuring Hawkins but no Edison), “Stella By Starlight” (a trio led by pianist Charles Thompson) and “Girl from Ipanema” (a quartet with Edison and no Hawkins). And the closing tune, “Caravan,” is full of mystery and great playing; always great to hear that one.

The Jimmy Smith disc takes us to France in 1969 for a trio date with Smith on organ (of course), Eddie McFadden on guitar and Charles Crosby on drums. There’s lots of variety here—the tunes range from Sonny Rollins’ driving “Sonnymoon for Two,” to the oft-covered mid-’60s movie theme “Alfie,” two peppy readings of Ellington’s “Satin Doll” (this is actually two different TV programs presented here), and a pair of blues—Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Working” (with Smith on croaky vocals) and “See See Rider,” which is preceded by Smith’s stirring solo fantasia. McFadden is particularly strong on that last tune.

Each of the three previous Jazz Icons Series has featured a disc by a female vocalist—Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone—and this time out it’s Anita O’Day, showcased in concerts seven years apart—Sweden in 1963 (when she was in her mid-40s) and Norway in 1970. The one-time chanteuse for Gene Krupa and others is in excellent voice in the first show as she leads a solid trio through a selection of standards (“Let’s Fall in Love,” “Fly Me to the Moon, a rather hyper “Tea for Two”). She doesn’t sound quite as good on the 1970 date, though her phrasing is as adventurous as ever. On both, her appealing stage presence adds some luster to the music.

Finally, there is pianist Erroll Garner, playing with bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin in 1963 and ’64. Frankly, I haven’t heard him much through the years, but this disc makes me want to investigate him more. His touch can feel a little heavy at times, he can be a tad florid, and some might be distracted by his little growls and hums (a less annoying precursor to Keith Jarrett, perhaps), but he has a magnificent melodic gift, tons of imagination and he exudes an infectious joie de vivre. Most of the 17 songs are standards, though he also does well on a pair of Latin-influenced songs—“Mambo Erroll” and “One Note Samba.”

You can find me at blair@blairjackson.com.