Eagle Rock Entertainment // 1975 // 79 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // August 10th, 2006
A true virtuoso in rare form...both artistically and technologically.
He sits on the stage all alone, his balding head catching the theatrical lights as they mercilessly beat down on him. As sweat starts to build along his forehead and neck, he lifts his instrument up to his chest. A few slight strums and the placement of a pick in his mouth, and Joe Pass is prepared. He looks out at the crowd, gives them a determined look, and sets his hands along the strings. Suddenly, music fills the air, the sound of a single guitar creating complex melodies and counter-harmonies. Riffs regularly concur and collide with each other, each phrase finding the exact moment to interact with the other. As the notes mingle and merge, their virtuosity violating all laws of art and ambience, recognizable songs begin to form. As Pass plays, we suddenly "see" the music being made, our mind's eye riffling through our internal index to pick out the proper sonic identification. Just like that, as soon as we have a handle on what is going on tonally, everything changes. Chords careen and then attack each other. Recognizable lines invert and then implode. Flourishes finish the effort and, as hands leave frets, Pass is spent. Head beaded with perspiration, he nods at the audience. They respond with a combination of awe and admiration. As the applause dies down, Pass prepares again. A shift in his seat. A raising of his instrument. The placing of a pick in his mouth ...
Presented as part of a new DVD series highlighting jazz impresario Norman Granz's contributions to the masterful musical genre, it's very appropriate that Joe Pass is highlighted here. It was Granz who saw Pass as more than just a perfunctory sideman adding his stellar sides to well-regarded combos. Granz wanted him front and center stage, knowing he could deliver as a solo act as well as a part of a group. Granz was especially impressed with Pass's ability to take complicated patterns and intricate arrangements and recreate them, all by himself, on the guitar. He didn't require large orchestras or a complement of musicians. All he needed was an instrument, an amp, and a stage, and Pass would become his own accompaniment. The results? They were undeniably great. Pass pushed the limits of his tool, using all of its abilities -- sustain, echo, reverberation, staccato -- to turn simple songs into intricate works of aural art. While some may argue that he was flowery for the sake of flash or incapable of improvising beyond a certain set of signature moves, such sentiments avoid the obvious issue: Pass could play, and play exceptionally well. His was a combination of ambience and artifice, challenge and choice. He could have taken an easy breezy means of musicianship to underscore his craft. Instead, he pushed himself and his abilities to their restrictions, knowing something magical would come out of the melee. And he was right.
Presented here for the first time is a pair of performances from Pass's 1975 appearance at the Montreux Jazz festival. He was only supposed to play on the evening of July 17th. But his showcase was so well-received that a follow-up concert was scheduled for the 18th. During both presentations, Pass appeared alone onstage, dressed in a dapper suit and responding with a kind of quite disbelief at the response he was getting. Over the course of 80 electrifying minutes, we are treated to Pass's interpretation of the following classic tracks:
"More Than You Know"
"It's a Wonderful World"
"Mahna De Carnaval"
"I'm Glad There Is You"
"Willow Weep for Me"
"You Are the Sunshine of My Life"
"The Very Thought of You"
"Blues for Nina"
"How Long Has This Been Going On"
"Montreux Changes Too"
Anyone expecting big-band panache or some manner of in-concert conceptualization need only look at the title of this DVD presentation and prepare themselves for what is offered. Pass is a pudgy, regular Joe of a man who doesn't have the stage presence to pull of something gaudy or glitzy. Instead, he lets his musical mastery shine through. Every performance is the same: Pass plays, and the audience anticipates and then explodes. Humble and quite moved at times by the outpouring of affection, you can sense Pass contemplating the cause and effect of the response. While playing, he is lost in the sound. But once the spell is broken and he is back to Earth, he wants to read the reaction, to figure if it's really for him or something else entirely.
Granted, after listening to his lilting version of "It's a Wonderful World" or "Willow Weep for Me," there is no doubt as to the crowd's frenzied feedback. Even when he's randomly riffing, working through a collection of "Blues" or simply expressing his thanks to the venue in a pair of "Montreux Changes" pieces, Pass is perfection. He has the innate ability to make his guitar express the emotion inherent in both the song and in the style of its playing. "You are the Sunshine of My Life" may be a cool, soulful breeze of a ballad when Stevie Wonder works it, but in Pass's pliant hands, it becomes an uplifting ode to spirit and salvation. Like a singer who shines at both vocal variation and lyrical interpretation, Joe Pass lives through his instrument. It's a joy to behold and a privilege to overhear.
Within all this praise, however, is a purely technical caveat. Granz captured these performances with 1975 technology and, as much as Eagle Rock Entertainment has the ability to freshen up these ancient audio and aural artifacts, the sound and vision here still is rather average. Visually, the 1.33:1 full-screen image is analog video at its most indistinguishable. The colors are faded and the details diffuse. Thankfully, there is very little flaring, ghosting, or bleeding, but don't be fooled by the digital label. This is really nothing more than a tape-to-disc transfer. On the sonic side, we are given the standard Eagle Rock choices. The PCM Stereo is good, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is excellent, and the DTS Digital Surround is wonderful. While it may seem difficult to screw up a guy playing a guitar, you'd be surprised at the number of pre-DVD defects you can find in most old concert recordings. Thankfully, none of them are present here. As for extras, we are offered a look at Norman Granz and his incredible life courtesy of narrator Nat Hentoff (who also provides an intro to the concert and an insert essay), a look at drawings by David Stone Martin, and a selection of pictures by Georges Braunschweig. While none of them having anything to do with Pass, we do learn more about Granz and his connection to jazz and Montreux.
If you think guitar playing is all shredding and extended solos, fingers flying across the strings in a mad dash effort to cram as many notes into a stanza as possible, than you obviously have never seen someone like Joe Pass in action. Similar in style to a rock-and-oll axeman, Pass also wants to push the confines of his musical acumen. Instead of merely complementing a song, Pass wants to recreate the whole thing. The results are resplendent, making for an incredible concert experience.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
* Full Frame
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Introduction by Nat Hentoff
* A portrait of Norman Granz narrated by jazz expert Nat Hentoff
* Drawings by David Stone Martin
* Pictures by Georges Braunschweig
* Insert Essay by Nat Hentoff