Judge Maurice Cobbs's head is whirling from the swingin' jazz on this DVD.
Legendary artists. Classic concerts. Now on DVD.
You can't really know much about jazz without knowing the name Norman Granz. The impresario was one of the most influential people in jazz history; he helped to discover, manage, record, promote and present some of jazz's best and brightest over the years. He introduced live jazz to mainstream America with the "Jazz at the Philharmonic" concert series, he founded no less than four record labels (including Verve Records, home of some of the most spectacular jazz records ever recorded), and he personally managed the careers of such illustrious jazz legends as Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson. Aside from his almost superhuman promotion of jazz, he was also a powerful force for civil rights, personally going to bat for his stable of artists (most of whom were black) and battling racism wherever he found it: Oscar Peterson once recalled an incident in which Granz insisted that white cabdrivers take his black artists as customers—even while a policeman was pointing a loaded pistol at his stomach from close range. Granz got his way, maybe through sheer force of will.
Granz often said that he had three goals in life: to fight against racism, to give listeners a good product, and to earn money from good music. As such, his name is now synonymous with high-quality recordings and excellent music. This DVD lives up to Granz' legacy.
This entry in the "Jazz in Montreux" concert series presents a live performance by the great Count Basie at the prestigious jazz festival in 1975. One of the most important bandleaders of the swing era, Count Basie became the standard by which all big bands must be judged, and it's easy to see why. I have never known a time when the great Count Basie organization was off its game, and this DVD is no exception. But the rather shoddy presentation of the material detracted from my overall enjoyment of the show—the picture is simply awful, owing no doubt to the almost ancient video technology of the '70s. Would It have hurt to clean the picture up just a little? It's fuzzy, the color bleeds, it's grainy…ugh. And the titles look like something off a ten-year-old handi-cam.
But what you really buy this DVD for is the music, and on that level, it delivers. Big swing bands have come and gone—some better than others—but Count Basie literally wrote the book on rocking socks off, and every chapter on this disc features jaw-dropping performances from musical hotshots like Milt Jackson on the vibraphone, the amazing Johnny Griffin on tenor sax, and the astounding Niels Pedesen on bass. First up on the disc is Charlie Parker's composition "Billie's Bounce," and it starts the proceedings off with a bang—even though I didn't like being dropped into the middle of the performance without benefit of introduction. "I like to play fast. I get excited, and I have to sort of control myself, restrain myself," said Johnny Griffin, once, "But when the rhythm section gets cooking, I want to explode." He does explode, dropping quotes from "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "Farmer in the Dell," among others, into his substantial solo. Roy Eldridge is equally proficient, taking his trumpet to the limits and easily transcending them with the sort of intensity and energy that you would expect from one of jazz's premier performers.
The tempo slows down a bit with the ultra-cool laid-back "Montreux Blues I," improvised on the spot, which allows Johnny Griffin and Milt Jackson to take the spotlight with spectacular solos that make even the great Basie smile more than once and the crowd explode with applause. The group picks up the pace again with "Lester Leaps In," a straight ahead and jumpin' little number that lets the collective cut loose with more barn-burning solos and down and dirty improvisation. Here again, Roy Eldridge shows us why he is regarded one of the greatest instrumentalists in the history of jazz, with pyrotechnic trumpet playing that leaves you gasping for air.
The final number is a variation on the improvisational "Montreux Blues," allowing the collective to dazzle us with their off-the-cuff acumen. This is, after all, the real charm of live jam session—to watch masters of their respective instruments both competing and cooperating in what can only be described as a musical orgy. The Count is king of the keyboard, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Plus, what the DVD lacks in regard to video quality is certainly made up for with the audio: your choice between crystal-clear 5.1 digital or DTS surround sound puts you practically on stage with the group. But for the true audiophiles among you, there is an added treat: the disc includes a PCM stereo option. I'd always assumed that PCM was essentially the same as your average CD sound. Trust me. It's better.
Special features include a brief but informative introduction by jazz guru and columnist Nat Hentoff (in case you have trouble following it, the intro is also included as the liner notes). Jazz enthusiasts will especially be delighted by the gallery of stunning portraits by famed painter David Stone Martin, as well as the gallery of photographs by George Brunschweig, which showcase such jazz greats as Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Oscar Peterson. Swank.
If you think you'd enjoy hearing a hard-swinging live big band that above all is having fun with what they're doing, then you will absolutely enjoy this selection. I did, in spite of the crappy video quality—and I'm really glad that the guys in the band play louder than their outfits. Oy!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Eye Media
• Portrait of Norman Granz, Narrated by Nat Hentoff
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