Jazz Icons presents some of the finest performances ever recorded
by Kevin Crowe
Itâ’s a shame that many of Americaâ’s greatest jazz musicians never achieved the same level of success stateside as they did overseas. In France, New Orleans jazzmen first discovered the soprano sax, which looked to them like a golden clarinet. In Germany, egghead music lovers just couldnâ’t get enough of jazzâ’s eclectic phrasing and what appeared to be demented structures, all of which were a much-needed departure from hundreds of years of classical training. This was music that had its origins on Congo Square, the main hub of New Orleansâ’ slave tradeâ"where cultures collided only to grind out something new, something like blues with music theory to back it up. It was totally American, too, probably the only uniquely Yankee art at the time.
American expatriates such as Dexter Gordon did much of their best work across the Atlantic. And during the â’40s, â’50s and â’60s, when Coltrane, Mingus, and Dave Brubeck were huge, jazz represented a kind of creative freedom that simply wasnâ’t allowed in many other art forms, not in music at least. Jazz Icons Vol. 2, a collection of seven DVDs from Reelinâ’ in the Years Productions, features some of the finestâ"and best preservedâ"European jazz performances, from the svelte, sexy voice of Sarah Vaughan to the guitar licks of Wes Montgomery. Montgomery, along with his predecessor, Charlie Christian, showed the world that the guitar can be used for much more than rhythm.
Vaughan, according to Dizzy Gillespie, used her voice like a horn, hitting notes that other singers could never quite get. Her voice developed at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church Choir, and her strict religious upbringing had an effect on her entire career. We see Vaughan in 1958, standing in front of a Swedish crowd. Almost shyly, she says that sheâ’s going to sing. But when the music starts, the demure, restrained woman transforms into the songbird that she isâ"nothingâ’s flashy about her stage presence, sheâ’s just there, in front of the microphone, letting her voice fill the room without any other distractions.
The Charles Mingus DVD, which features performances in Belgium, Norway, and Sweden in 1964, contains renditions of some of the bassistâ’s finest compositions, such as â“Meditations on Integrationâ” and â“Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk.â” Mingus hunches over his bass, clawing at the strings, occasionally popping his head up to make sure his accompaniment is still with him.
These performances, all shot during the month of April, just three monthâ’s before the great reedman Eric Dolphy died, show the depth and range of Mingusâ’ work. The songs can be cool and subdued, until Dolphyâ’s joined by the screaming tenor sax of Clifford Jordan. Mingus was able to tread the line between the hard bop that came before him and the more mellow arrangements that were standard jazz fare in the â’60s. He was a visionary, sure, a musical alchemist of sorts who demanded more from his musicians than anyone elseâ"and Mingus got away with it, because the end results were some of the most breathtaking and avant-garde arrangements of the 1960s.
The John Coltrane DVD is yet another must-have for the serious jazzhead. Three performances from Germany in â’60 and â’61 and Belgium in â’65 capture the frenetic style that he developed under the guidance of bop legends in the 1950s. By 1965, however, Coltrane had become something of a mythical figure, with his creativity arching into the far-out realms of sound, as his brass sheets of sound belted out faster and faster. Thereâ’s no performance of â“Giant Stepsâ” here, but there are two wonderful sets of â“My Favorite Things,â” so that we can see Coltrane pick up the soprano sax and slow things down.
In addition to his classic quartet with Elvin Jones (drums), Jimmy Garrison (bass), and McCoy Tyner (piano), Trane is seen performing alongside other jazz superstars, from Stan Getz to Eric Dolphy.
When he plays, Trane rarely closes his eyes. He stares into the audience, blinking rhythmically until the song comes to an end. Thereâ’s always a brief pause before the audience applauds. A fraction of a second of silence to let it all sink in, a small moment to let the music speak for itself.
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