The Jazz.com Blog
December 22, 2008 · 1 comment
Thomas Cunniffe, who recently looked at Sonny Rollins’s work on DVD in this column, now turns his attention to some recent video releases featuring three departed masters of the jazz keyboard: Art Tatum, Duke Ellington and Bill Evans. T.G.
It is one of the strangest ironies of our time: with our economy hinging on disaster and consumer spending reaching new lows, jazz DVDs are coming out left and right, andthey’re selling! One online jazz retailer boasts of having 1,725 different DVD titles for sale. Much of the credit belongs to Reelin’ In The Years, the producers of the Jazz Icons series. They have found superb performance videos which are presented in high quality video and audio, and, for the most part, are previously undocumented. The sales have exceeded all expectations.
Perhaps in the near future, Reelin’ In The Years will unearth some footage of Art Tatum. As it stands, there are 3 clips totaling about 9 minutes, and only one of them features Tatum’s typical repertoire. That clip is a 1955 BBC performance of “Yesterdays,” and to my knowledge, its only video release is on the documentary The Art Of Jazz Piano. That documentary, originally made for Britain’s Channel 4, has just been released by Screen Edge. Contrary to the box’s claim, it is not the only documentary ever made on Tatum (a public TV station in Toledo produced an admirable 30-minute profile in 1983 and, the following year, Tatum was the subject of an episode of Bravo’s Doctor Jazz, Billy Taylor).
However, the Channel 4 effort is the longest and best of the lot, including all 3 clips (the others are “Tiny’s Exercise” recorded for the March Of Time, and a jam session blues from the film, The Fabulous Dorseys), several well-chosen audio recordings and stunning recreations of the Tatum style by Dick Hyman and Hank Jones. Best of all, director Howard Johnson had the good sense to let Tatum’s music play without interruption or voice-over narration. There are interviews with Les Paul (who was a pianist before he heard Tatum), Tatum historian Arnold Laubich, Tatum’s younger brother Karl, and Fats Waller’s son, Maurice. All contribute to a sharply focused portrait of jazz’s greatest piano virtuoso.
Other than the strange cover heading of “Nashville Reggae” and the lack of scene selections on the menu, there’s little to complain about regarding the Tatum DVD. I cannot say the same about Laser Swing Productions’ latest entry in their Norman Granz Presents series. It is a double-disc set with the films Duke Ellington At The Côte D’Azur with Ella Fitzgerald and Joan Miró (1966) and Duke: The Last Jam Session (1973). From a musical perspective, the programs are reasonably strong: in the first film, the Ellington band is visibly tired, but they still play very well, and on the second film, the musicians are a little slow to find their groove, but things get better as the date progresses. The problem is more in the presentation. The “Côte D’Azur” film was supposedly made for theatrical release, but then why did Granz shoot in 16mm black and white instead of 35mm color, especially with the beautiful scenery of the French Riviera as the backdrop and the Maeght Foundation Museum at St. Paul De Vance as a featured setting? The film has not survived well, with scratches and sloppy splices evident throughout.
The Last Jam Session is only a notch better than a home movie. It was shot with one camera with no adjustments made for decent camera shots (For example, guitarist Joe Pass sits behind the raised lid of the piano!). The picture goes in and out of focus as the cameraman tries to switch between musicians in real time, and, in several instances, Granz stands right in the middle of the shot with his backside to the camera as he talks to Duke. So, if you want the music (especially Ella’s reading of “Something To Live For”), get the CDs of Ella & Duke At The Côte D’Azur and Duke’s Big Four and leave this video in the bin!
Jazz Icons’ Bill Evans DVD is an essential addition to the pianist’s legacy. It includes five different performances dating from 1964-1975. In the notes, the Jazz Icons producers say that they usually select concerts of 30 minutes or more for the main DVDs and put the shorter pieces on a bonus disc. I’m glad they decided to make an exception in this case.
Evans went through several transformations during the eleven years sampled here, not only in his music but also in his physical appearance and his general stage manner. The 1964 session with bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Larry Bunker is very introspective and Evans is bent over the piano, barely making eye contact with either his audience or his fellow musicians. In the following year, he plays with Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen and Alan Dawson, and on the first tune, they sound as if they had been working with Evans for years, playing in the same subdued styles as their predecessors. Then Lee Konitz joins the group for a version of “Melancholy Baby” and the style changes to straight-ahead.
The next two sessions are from 1970 and feature Evans’s second great trio—with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morrell. Evans’s playing seems energized and the group is quite aggressive, even on “Round Midnight,” which features a powerful locked-hands solo by the pianist. The 1975 session was recorded in a studio with Eliot Zigmund replacing Morrell. The repertoire is oriented toward originals such as Earl Zindars’ “Sareen Jurer” and Evans’s “Twelve Tone Tune Two,” and lesser-known pieces such as Mercer Ellington’s “Blue Serge” and Jerome Kern’s “Up With The Lark.” The transformation of Evans’s physical look from 1964 to 1975 is well-known, but the most profound change can be seen by jumping between the opening shots of the 1964 and 1975 sessions. Evans’ hands, beautiful and slender in 1964, are pudgy and swollen by 1975. Was this another tragic consequence of Evans’s drug addiction?
ART TATUM: THE ART OF JAZZ PIANO Screen Edge 53. 52 minutes.
1988. Produced and directed by Howard Johnson. With Art Tatum, Les Paul, Eddie Barefield, Dick Hyman, Hank Jones, Maurice Waller, Milt Hinton, Karl Tatum, Arnold Laubich, Paul Machlin.
DUKE ELLINGTON AT THE CÔTE D’AZUR WITH ELLA FITZGERALD AND JOAN MIRÓ 1966. Written and produced by Norman Granz. Directed and edited by Alexander Arnz. 62 minutes.
Cat Anderson, Cootie Williams, Mercer Ellington, Herbie Jones (tp); Lawrence Brown, Chuck Connors, Buster Cooper (tb); Johnny Hodges, Russell Procope, Jimmy Hamilton, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney (r); Duke Ellington (p); John Lamb (b); Sam Woodyard (d). The Opener; Such Sweet Thunder; Black & Tan Fantasy/Creole Love Call/The Mooche; The Old Circus Train Turn-Around Blues; La Plus Belle Africaine; Things Ain’t What They Used To Be.
Duke Ellington (p); John Lamb (b); Sam Woodyard (d). Kinda Dukish; The Shepherd.
Ella Fitzgerald (v); Ellington’s trumpets, trombones & reeds as above; Jimmy Jones (p); Jim Hughart (b); Grady Tate (d). Satin Doll; Something To Live For; The Jazz Samba (So Danço Samba).
DUKE: THE LAST JAM SESSION 1973. No credits, but doubtlessly produced by Norman Granz. 96 minutes.
Duke Ellington (p); Joe Pass (g); Ray Brown (b); Louis Bellson (d). The Brotherhood; Just Squeeze Me; Carnegie Blues; The Hawk Talks; Prelude To A Kiss; Cottontail; Everything But You; Love You Madly; Fragmented Suite.
Above 2 films issued as 2-DVD set, LSP/Eagle Eye 39069.
BILL EVANS: LIVE ’64-’75 Jazz Icons 2.119013. 97 minutes.
Sweden, September 29, 1964: Bill Evans (p); Chuck Israels (b); Larry Bunker (d). My Foolish Heart; Israel.
France, 1965: Lee Konitz (as—“Melancholy Baby” only); Bill Evans (p); Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen (b); Alan Dawson (d). Detour Ahead; Melancholy Baby.
Copenhagen, 1970: Bill Evans (p); Eddie Gomez (b); Marty Morrell (d). Emily; Alfie; Someday My Prince Will Come.
Sweden, February 20, 1970: Bill Evans (p); Eddie Gomez (b); Marty Morrell (d). If You Could See Me Now; Round Midnight; Someday My Prince Will Come; A Sleepin’ Bee; You’re Gonna Hear From Me; Re: Person I Knew.
Denmark, 1975: Bill Evans (p); Eddie Gomez (b); Eliot Zigmund (d). Sareen Jurer; Blue Serge; Up With The Lark; But Beautiful; Twelve Tone Tune Two.
This blog entry posted by Thomas Cunniffe.