This DVD, recorded February 27, 1985 at New York’s fabled Town Hall, serves as a front row seat to an amazing jazz reunion concert. Blue Note, while not out for the count, had become a dormant record label. This concert was to announce their resurrection under the leadership of Bruce Lundvall and would celebrate the label’s rich history while introducing its new roster at the same time. Following a cursory overview of the label’s history, from the 1939 founding by German immigrants Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff and their longtime affiliation with art director Reid Miles and the visionary recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, the program opens. Of the 15 performances captured on film, each brings an aspect of the label’s importance in jazz evolution to the fore.
Herbie Hancock opens with "Cantaloupe Island," fronting a combo that certainly earns the "super group" tag. Freddie Hubbard solos with a fiery ferocity matched by Joe Henderson’s stirring intellectuality. Hancock’s own solos are well paced and exciting, tapping into his deep bluesy roots, and Ron Carter and Tony Williams are the essence of a foundational rhythm team. It is worth noting, too, that the videography here, as throughout the disc, is every bit as stunning as Wolff’s legendary cover art.
Henderson’s "Recorda-Me" follows, with the same personnel joined by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. Williams’ thunderous solo intro clarifies his place in the jazz drum pantheon. After taking a last minute aside comment from Henderson, Hubbard launches into a strong solo, and with Henderson pulls out wonderful unison lines. The piece is more swinging than Hancock’s. It isn’t immediately clear that Hutcherson can keep up. He’s nearly overwhelmed by the drums before catching a breath and working assertively into the ranks. Henderson’s solo is confident and circular. Hubbard, one of a small handful of the most important and inspired of trumpeters proves why with cascades of brilliant chords broken by singular bleats before he just stops. Hancock smiles and takes a solo equal to the trumpeter’s before, on cue, the horns step back in with unison voicing that thrills. On Hutcherson’s "Little B’s Poem," the group is pared down to vibes, piano, rhythm and flautist James Newton on an enchanting number. The ensemble shrinks to Hancock, Carter and Hutcherson for Hutcherson’s lilting "Bouquet." Naturally, the flavor and the performance are delicious.
Guitarist Stanley Jordan, then at the peak of his popularity, offers a brilliant performance of "Jumpin Jack," on which he dazzles with technique, yet infuses the pieces with emotive nuance. This is followed by one of the highlights of the evening’s many impressive performances. "Summertime" opens with unexplained visuals of Sidney Bechet, perhaps as a means of making the connection between the pioneer of jazz soprano saxophone and Grover Washington, Jr., who turns in what can only be described as a transcendent performance. In tandem with Kenny Burrell, Reggie Workman and Grady Tate, this is a truly stellar performance. Washington had the misfortune of being exceedingly popular and so was sometimes shorted of his props for being an amazing performer. He was a brilliant player and clearly was in his element here. There were a lot of smiles on the stage that night. Tate and Burrell couldn’t help themselves. Burrell’s work here is equally dazzling and the bass solo that Workman gave was wonderful.
Personnel shifted some more for the performance of the Bobby Timmons/ Jazz Messengers classic "Moanin." Freddie Hubbard is joined on stage by Johnny Griffin (tenor), Curtis Fuller (trombone), Walter Davis, Jr. (piano) and the man, Art Blakey. This Jazz Messengers lineup tears it up. A first degree show stopper, "Moanin’" is a showcase for each of the players. Hubbard is stratospheric, the non-stop smiling Davis plays in a Bud Powell mode, Blakely is sweatin’ and kickin’ with an indefatigable strength, Griffin brings a hard blowing tenor and Fuller plays extraordinarily through his big yellow mute. Michael Cuscuna writes that Blakey was flown on the Concorde to New York from an engagement at Ronnie Scott’s in London specifically for the concert. To counter the energy level and to cool the ears somewhat, McCoy Tyner follows with a very brief yet elegant grand piano solo spot on his appropriately titled "Sweet and Lovely."
"Appointment in Ghana," the Jackie McLean classic, is rendered in appropriately classic fashion by the composer, Woody Shaw, McCoy Tyner, Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette. The interplay between the horns is spellbinding, and it’s an especial treat to watch a healthy and vibrant Woody Shaw in action. Cecil McBee’s solo (whew!) and Tyner’s (double whew!) are highlights. The narrator tells us that Charles Lloyd came out of retirement to play with Michel Petrucciani. Their quartet performance with DeJohnette and McBee is the highlight of the evening. Lloyd’s circular tenor and the sheer physicality of his playing are mesmerizing. Much like latter-day Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders, his playing is intensely spiritual and his blowing hard, muscular, powerful. Petrucciani matches the intensity with brilliantly executed chromatic and intellectual playing that stands on its own.
Lou Donaldson offers an interesting enough "Blues Walk." In all fairness, the Lloyd-Petrucciani performance is difficult to follow, but I never get the sense that the players (Jimmy Smith, Kenny Burrell and Grady Tate) were invested in the piece. On the following Jay McShann-penned "Jumpin’ Blues," Stanley Turrentine replaces Donaldson and the fire returns. They stay on stage to perform Turrentine’s "Scratch My Back," as well. The players all shine here, particularly Smith and Burrell. Again, the camera work puts the viewer in the mix with the players with angles that pan over the heads, focus on hands and capture expressions beautifully.
The final piece on the night is "Pontos Cantados," performed solo by the composer, Cecil Taylor. One of the most important musicians of the 20th Century, he attacks the piano, coaxing the sounds that he can’t wring out of the instrument. Taylor serves as something of a startling contrast to all that had gone before, though he makes for a perfect bookend to Hancock’s opening comparative melodicism. Taylor represented, if not necessarily the future, certainly the outside possibilities of the music.
The DVD is packaged with a CD of the performances of nine of the 16 performances - "Cantaloupe Island," "Recorda-Me," "Little B’s Poem," "Summertime," "Sweet and Lovely," "Appointment in Ghana," "Blues Walk," "The Jumpin’ Blues" and "Scratch My Back" -- which stand on their own as delights to listen to repeatedly. I’d have preferred the Charles Lloyd and Cecil Taylor to the Donaldson and the second Turrentine number, but I have no quibbles. Well, perhaps one. That Horace Silver was no where to be seen seems unforgivable, though I’m hardly privy to the story of why he was not on the program. So, call it a disappointment. The package remains a gem, regardless, and comes very highly recommended.