The three-so-far Jazz Icons series include videos of performances by musicians too numerous to mention for the interests of concision within this review. Just a few of the featured musicians of previous Jazz Icons packages include John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, captured on tape when European broadcasters recorded them. In many cases, these priceless tapes were stashed away, and forgotten, for decades. Fortunately, the resources finally have been assembled to deliver not only collectively some extended and important videos packages of groundbreaking jazz musicians, but also individually opportunities to experience the feeling of one of their live performances.
The most recent release consists of seven DVD’s, each at least an hour in length, of artists performing in various European venues centered around the 1960’s, when social protests started to increase and before fusion changed the nature of jazz. This third series actually covers a range of jazz extant at that time, rather than focusing on a single style, and for that reason the Naxos and Reelin’ in the Years producers deserve much credit. For the box set ranges from the unclassifiable style of Nina Simone, who was true to herself rather than to a category, to the continuing joyousness of Oscar Peterson’s music to a throwback to the 1940’s with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. These producers show, through the results that they offer and through their lavish documentation, open-mindeness and a strong devotion to the music. Each DVD package includes a tribute from someone close to the artist, such as Bill Evans’ daughter, as well as extensive appreciations of the artists by highly regarded jazz writers.
It is impossible to describe in even minimal detail the abundance of delights in these DVD’s. Every person has his or her own reaction to music, not to mention to the sight of an artist in performance. However, brief descriptions of each DVD follow.
Nina Simone performs two concerts, the first in Holland in 1965 and the second in England in 1968. The 24-page booklet includes an introduction by Simone’s daughter, and the concerts include some of the songs that she made famous, including "Four Women," Mississippi Goddam" and "Go to Hell," after her political awakening from the Medgar Evers assassination. Reportedly, this choice was the producers’ most controversial, and people whose opinions they sought were split about including Simone. Thankfully, they did. Now that Simone is being re-popularized by singers like Nnenna Freelon and Robin McKelle for her fierce originality, Jazz Icons has made it possible to take in the soulfulness of her live performances.
Lionel Hampton’s video is the most traditional of the entire set, but it gives a sense of his famous unflagging energy that invariously excited his audiences, as Quincy Jones recalls in his reminiscence in the booklet. In addition, John McDonough provides an insightful and literate appreciation of Hampton’s work. The Hampton concert took place at the Royal Theatre Opera House in Liège, Belgium in 1958. Reportedly, public broadcaster INR took liberties with the editing of the concert for television viewing, but still the DVD exhibits the exuberance of Hampton and the vitality of the band in no uncertain terms.
Cannonball Adderley, though reluctant to move to New York for a jazz career, became a sensation and inspired numerous musicians with the joyous spirituality of his music, including Nancy Wilson, Michael Wolff or Louis Hayes. The Jazz Icons package includes note by Ira Gitler and a remembrance from Adderley’s widow. Moreover, the concerts in Germany and Switzerland in 1963 give a sense of Adderley’s effervescence and confidence and includes sidemen Nat Adderley, Yusef Lateef, Joe Zawinul, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes. Moreover, Reelin’ in the Years’ dedication to the project is evident by its determination to present entire concerts, even though initially only 20-minute footage was available. Further research found the additional tapes, and now the entire 71-minute Swiss concert is shown for the first time since 1963.
Sonny Rollins performs with his not customary but unrestrained exuberance as if he’s putting everything on the line whenever he performs during his 1965 and 1968 concerts in Denmark. The producers appear to appreciate Rollins’ unique ability to connect with listeners by including appreciations by Joe Lovano and Joe Goldberg, a Rollins acquaintance from the 1950’s who wrote the liner notes to Newk’s Time. Noted biographer Ashley Kahn covers Rollins’ career and describes the circumstances of the Danish concerts in detail. As Rollins toured Europe, he picked up back-up bands for his performances, and these two included Kenny Drew, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Alan Dawson and "Tootie" Heath. Rest assured, Rollins, as a force of nature until to give a less-than-astounding performance, includes his famous long introductions, penchant quotes, jubilant melodies, irresistible rhythms and signature cadenzas.
Bill Evans appears in a series of concerts in Sweden and Denmark from 1965 to 1975 with Chuck Israels, Ørsted Pedersen, Alan Dawson and Larry Bunker, and the concerts documented here are the shortest in the series. However, they do give evidence of the changes that Evans underwent during the half decade covered in the videos, and the viewer is treated to a youngish Lee Konitz walking onto the stage to join Evans. The booklet itself includes a touching tribute by Evans’ daughter, Maxine, who had no idea how much her father affect thousands until she saw the multitude of people attending his memorial service at St. Peter’s Church, including some outside who climbed onto the window sills to look in. In addition, Israels writes eloquently about the experience of performing with Evans. Possibly one of the most introverted of jazz musicians, hunched over the piano and seeming to give careful consideration to each note, Bill Evans comes across with the smoldering intensity that somehow made possible unique and beautiful, inimitable music.
Oscar Peterson gives more of his impeccably technically individualistic and unavoidably swinging concerts in Sweden, Denmark and Finland from 1963 to 1965. His popularity in Scandinavia comes as no surprise due to the fact that some of his famous albums, such as Eloquence, which was recorded live at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. Unfortunately, Peterson passed away just before the DVD was released, but his widow who writes a foreword permitted use of personal photos in the booklet. Peterson’s irrepressible trio for these concerts included Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen as they always challenge each other and push each other to the highest levels of performance. Guest musicians include Roy Eldridge in Sweden and Clark Terry in Finland.
And then there’s Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Talk about being uncategorizable! And visually entertaining! Kirk always regretted, though, that his musicianship wasn’t appreciated sufficiently, even as he emphasized his experimentation in sonic possibilities by playing multiple horns or creating some of his own instruments. However, his musicianship is entirely evident throughout these concerts, particularly on flute and tenor sax, and as always, he pours his entire soul into each concert, each song, each note. During Kirk’s concerts in Belgium, Holland and Norway, he is joined by George Gruntz, Ron Burton, Guy Pedersen, Daniel Humair, Ørsted Pedersen and Alex Riel. While Kirk’s strange and innovative sounds provoke some wonder when listening to CD’s, his video provides clues to how he achieved such sonic accomplishments, such as his circular breathing, odd technique, unique fingering, the nature of the instruments identified with him and his interaction with audiences.
Long review? No, it’s short in comparison to the riches to be found in the Jazz Icons DVD’s. The third set is available as an entire package, or the DVD’s may be acquired separately according to the artists of interest. Whatever the case, the Jazz Icons series represent a major discovery in the documentation of legendary jazz musicians universally revered.