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Jazz Icons Series 2: Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus, Wes Montgomery, Sarah Vaughn

Reelin In the Years Productions
The second installment of the Jazz Icons series presents some phenomenal performances of world class jazz artists captured live in Europe in various settings between the 1950s and 1970s. Available as a set or individually, each of the following DVDs is culled from surprisingly excellent footage and has painstakingly restored sound that is remarkably crystal clear. In addition, each artist gets the royal treatment with his or her own 24-page booklet featuring liner notes from family members and prominent jazz historians, as well as rare photographs and memorabilia. These are simply stellar packages that are essential to any jazzhounds collection.
Dave Brubeck Live in 64 and 66
Cool jazz pioneer Dave Brubecks Classic Quartet, featuring drummer Joe Morello, bassist Eugene Wright, and the incomparable Paul Desmond on alto sax, is showcased in 1964 and 1966 performances that Brubeck, himself, calls the best footage of the Classic Quartet Ive ever seen. The festivities open in a 1964 Belgian studio where the quartet feels incredibly relaxed and, despite the lack of an audience, seems to have an incredibly joyous time communicating with one another. The inventive take on the opening St. Louis Blues sets the stage for 30 minutes of genius. Here Brubeck and his mates polish the rough edges away from W.C. Handys raunchy classic, yet they still manage to maintain a tremendous amount of intensity while applying subtle hints of Latin themes. The band is clearly having a good time as they bounce through the playful Three To Get Ready, and they remain effortlessly cool as Desmond guides them through Koto Song with some buttery lines. Of course, the signature Take Five is featured, and unlike the studio recording, Brubeck is freed from the endless vamp, so he takes his melodies off into some fascinating Asian territories. This entire performance is filmed with an amazingly impressive array of camera angles that capture the action from above, below, up close, far away, and nearly every direction imaginable. The second performance is from a 1966 Berlin concert that begins with a rollicking spin on Take the A Train. After blazing through the number with dexterity for several minutes, Brubeck and Morello trade stanzas and downshift into a slinking blues groove before ramping back up to a sprint. Once again, the camerawork is excellent, capturing the subtleties of Morellos every move. Forty Days features incredible dynamics, as Brubeck leads the band into a gentle pianissimo before seemingly launching into a strident explosion, but sure enough, just as hes about to blow his top, he brings everything back down again to a soft landing. A surprisingly shorter spin on Take Five lets Desmond explore more of a bebop realm, while Brubeck opts for some interesting Middle Eastern figures in the concerts finale. Both of these performances display the Dave Brubeck Quartets unique penchant for creating music that is uncompromisingly cool and smooth but still loaded with clever time-changes and shifting dynamics, brimming with character. – Brian Ferdman
John Coltrane Live in 60 & 61 & 65
The John Coltrane disc is simply stunning, both visually and musically, with three performances from three very different stages of Coltranes career that brilliantly demonstrate the musical journey he took during the last seven years of his life. The first segment from 1960 is one of his first solo performances outside of Miles Davis band, playing with what amounts to a pick-up band featuring Stan Getz and Oscar Peterson as guests. The black and white footage is lovingly restored but retains a slightly grainy look, only adding to the atmosphere already established by the superbly understated lighting and the exquisite, delicate playing. Coltrane plays three songs from Davis repertoire, and the selections show a talented man just starting to shake off the influence of his mentor. The footage from late 1961 shows less delicacy and a more exuberant approach, as half the classic lineup of the quintet (McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones) plus Eric Dolphy and Reggie Workman throw caution to the wind and play with a truly wild abandon. Its a perfect portrait of musicians realizing that they really have no limits to where they can go. My Favorite Things is magnificent, with Elvin Jones drumming propelling things along at a breakneck pace, and the version of Impressions is simply epic, as Coltrane pushes into unbridled expressionism and then allows both Dolphy and Tyner to follow him, albeit on their own paths. The final segment from Belgium in 1965 is the last known footage of Coltrane performing in public and comes just months before the Quartet splintered, driven apart by Coltranes even more adventurous experiments into atonal territory. The scintillating version of Vigil bears absolutely no resemblance to the recorded version and is twelve minutes of frenetic improv. The closing 20 minute take on My Favorite Things is quite breathtaking, with McCoy Tyner shining in an extended, driving solo. These three performances provide the rare and invaluable opportunity to watch a gifted musician spread his wings and soar. – Mark Burnell
Duke Ellington Live in 58
The 1958 performance from Amsterdams Concertgebouw is the earliest-known filmed full-length concert from Duke Ellington. Captured two years after Dukes groundbreaking performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, this is a portrait of a revitalized band riding high on the crest of a wave of popularity. The late 1950s were unkind to big bands, but Newport put Ellington back on the map, and this DVD shows exactly why a seemingly old-fashioned act was able to remain relevant in a sea of bebop. Simply put, Ellington and company swing like nobodys business, grooving through classics like Sophisticated Lady, All of Me, and Things Aint What They Used To Be. However, its the second set and finale of this concert where Ellingtons band really makes their mark. Drummer Sam Woodyard makes ample use of his elbow on the snare while cooking through a jungle-inspired series of drum solos on the invigorating Hi-Fi-Fo-Fum. Then Ellington turns the band loose on a big-time medley of his most well-known work. Just like the 1927 New York Yankees, this veritable Murderers Row of musicians hits home run after home run off of these legendary numbers. Finally, its time for the grand finale, and Paul Gonsalves chugs his way through a sprawling bridge of a solo in the infamous closer, Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue. This performance is not quite up to the once-in-a-lifetime earth-shattering standards of Ellington at Newport, but it still burns with raging intensity, thanks in part to trumpeter William Cat Andersons wailing high notes. Its nearly impossible to sit still through this invigorating number, and this performance serves as living proof that while the 1950s saw a sea-change in the world of jazz, Ellingtons music remained as vibrant and important as ever before. – Brian Ferdman
Dexter Gordon Live in 63 & 64
From the opening of his DVD, its evident that tenor sax player Dexter Gordon was one cool customer. His Holland 1964 performance begins with him walking down a darkened alley. He strolls into a cave-like bar, tosses his hat and trenchcoat to a bartender, and then jaunts up to a stage to join a band in progress. Then he hops on the microphone, and his velvet-throated voice gives a smooth introduction to the A Night In Tunisia. Its so impressive that his introduction actually earns applause from the audience. Gordon and his band of European musicians give an intense turn on the Dizzy Gillespie classic with Gordon skipping around through the melody and then going into a very lengthy solo. Whats New showcases Gordons pure tone and gliding phrases, while Blues Walk gives his band a more swinging platform to dance around in their bebopping sound, a notion thats also echoed on a Switzerland 1963 rendition of Second Balcony Jump. Unfortunately, the remaining three songs on this disc (including a Belgium concert from 1964) are culled from more formal, less invigorating performances, and the ballads have a somewhat disappointing degree of sameness. There is nothing particularly wrong with these songs, but there is not much that really stands out, either, and the opening sequence in the relaxed Dutch club is clearly highlight of this DVD. – Brian Ferdman
Charles Mingus Live in 64
The Charles Mingus DVD showcases the classic Mingus band in three performances from the same week in 1964, scant months before multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphys tragic early death. These were scheduled to be Dolphys last performances with the band (he was staying in Europe to get married when the band returned to the US), and perhaps the circumstances caused Mingus to deliberately give him more room to shine. Whether that was the case or not, this DVD almost becomes an epitaph for Dolphy, who really dazzles, especially on a version of Take the A Train where he plays his bass clarinet like a man possessed. Indeed, this twelve minute gem is the highlight of the disc, demonstrating not only Dolphys extraordinary skills, but also highlighting both Mingus formidable talents as band leader he literally cuts off trumpeter Johnny Coles in the middle of a solo during the previous song, Parkeriana, to take an unexpected left turn into A Train. The entire band provides a rock solid yet remarkably fluid backing to Dolphys wild excursions while somehow managing to avoid being left behind by Mingus sudden changes. No less than three radically different takes on the groundbreaking Mediations on Integration provide further proof that this just may have been the best ever version of the Mingus band. Simply being able to see Mingus play with drummer Dannie Richmond, the two of them in a complete lockstep no matter how complicated Mingus makes the tempo changes, makes this DVD essential viewing. – Mark Burnell
Wes Montgomery Live in 65
I wasnt blown away by the Wes Montgomery disc, but in fairness, its not Mr. Montgomerys fault that his style was co-opted by the dreaded smooth jazz crowd. Indeed, this disc serves to prove what a talented musician he really was. In each of the three segments from the spring of 1964, Montgomery is playing with essentially a new and seldom-rehearsed pick-up band, and while theres no denying the talent of everyone involved, for these performances to sound as good as they do is a testament to the skills of a master musician. There are times over the course of the disc when everything sounds a little similar, but as long as the tempos are varied, its all very entertaining. The highlights are damned good, including a sprightly take on Impressions with Montgomery pulling off some lightning fast runs, and the complicated Four On Six, where a 6/8 guitar lead is imposed over a 4/4 backing and somehow both time signatures end up melding seamlessly. The other musicians are excellent, especially Dutch pianist Pin Jacobs during the initial segment. Considering they had never played together prior to this concert, its nothing short of remarkable how in-sync the two of them are, especially when you hear Montgomery dropping back to play behind Jacobs instead of taking the lead. Other pluses include some stuffy yet fascinating introductions to the songs in the final segment by British jazz legend Ronnie Scott, and some equally interesting liner notes from Pat Metheny, as Montgomery isnt lacking in high profile fans. His style of playing is certainly unique (he plucks the strings with his thumb and never seems to use more than three fingers on the frets at a time), and this release is rich with great close-ups of this odd technique, showing a master at the top of his game. – Mark Burnell
Sarah Vaughn Live in 58 and 64
The performances on Sarah Vaughns DVD are from both 1958 and 1964, and the six-year gap provides a fascinating insight into the growth of one of the greatest voices of the last 100 years. The opening selections from Sweden in 1958 are somewhat strange without the audible or visible presence of an audience. When Vaughn says, Thank you after each song, you have to wonder who shes thanking. Nevertheless, the young chanteuse is a stunningly simple beauty with a silky smooth voice that gracefully swings through Sometimes Im Happy and Mean to Me. The Holland 1958 performance showcases a more formal concert from Vaughn, and she really relishes the opportunity to perform effortless vocal glissandos through multiple notes in They All Laughed, eek heartbreak out of Lover Man, and blaze her way across Cherokee. When we come back to Sweden in 1964, Vaughn has become a very different woman. Not only has she visually matured, but her voice has lost some of its innocence and has been replaced by a smoky richness. Her vocal selections tend to run more toward the drama of musical theater (I Feel Pretty, Maria), and these songs provide Vaughn with plenty of emotional subtext, which she utilizes as she gazes over the audience with expressive eyes. Of course, its not all serious when she skips through I Got Rhythm, complete with an impressive acapella intro. Her maturation as a performer is also quite evident, while she invokes a playful sense of humor whenever possible, even making light of the fact that shes sweating like a racehorse. By the time she reaches the seemingly never-ending encore of Bill Bailey, Wont You Please Come Home, the mugging Vaughn goads the audience into letting her keep continuing the number, and its evident that in six years she has made the transition from intriguing young lady to commanding leading woman of the stage. – Brian Ferdman

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