Judge Eric Profancik is a jazz master.
"It could be called a midnight symphony."
The illustrious jazz jam session, eloquently called a midnight symphony by in the Oscar nominated short Jammin' the Blues, is given full measure in this long awaited release. Originally started in 1950, it only took 50 plus years to have it presented in its "complete and final form." After watching this long jam session/semi-documentary, I can only say that I wish I knew more about jazz and the blues. As someone with just the most fleeting appreciation of the genre, I know I lost the biggest part of the film since I don't know who these people are. Regardless, I still found my foot tapping away, and isn't that what any musician really wants, people to appreciate their music?
Facts of the Case
Improvisation is a collection of jam sessions (using the loosest definition of the phrase) filmed between 1950 and 1979. Some of the footage is a bit raw, incomplete (the clapboard are readily visible), while others are a spot more professionally done. Here's the rundown of what you'll find on the DVD:
• Mili's Studio Sequence, 1950, featuring Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young, Hank Jones, Ray Brown, and Buddy Rich. Different combinations of them come together to play "Ballade," "Celebrity," "Ad Lib," "Pennies from Heaven," and "Blues for Greasy."
• Duke Ellington at the Cote D'Azur playing "Blues for Joan Miro"
• Count Basie at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1977, playing "Nob's Blues," "Kidney Stew," and "These Foolish Things"
• Joe Pass, 1979, playing "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Prelude to a Kiss"
• Ella Fitzgerald, 1979, singing "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me" and "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."
• Oscar Peterson at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1977, featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, and Eddie Lockjaw David playing "Ali & Frazier."
Even a novice like me knows that one heck of a lineup!
The genesis of this film is the aforementioned "Jammin' the Blues" from Norman Granz and Gjon Mili in 1944. This short film was such a critical fave that they came back together to make a bigger, deeper, more encompassing film about the legendary jam session. I'm not certain why this fell through and took 50 years to finish, but this film (if that's the best term) is an engaging look at the greats back in the day. Look at those names above. I'm sure just about everyone has heard of at least one of them. Whether or not we know anything about them is another situation—and my personal quandary—yet perhaps Improvisation is best savored by the true aficionados of the music. While I enjoyed the music, I didn't fully appreciate what I was seeing. I know that if I knew more about jazz and the blues that I could have learned so much more and walked away with a big grin on my face. That is what Improvisation feels like to me: A film best viewed by those in the know. While it most certainly isn't snooty or unwelcoming, the casual viewer just isn't going to get it. We'll tap away to the tunes and that's about it.
And, if nothing else, I'm still humming "Blues for Joan Miro," my favorite set from the DVD. So simple, so subtle, yet so wonderfully memorable, Duke Ellington certainly has earned his reputation…along with all the other greats featured here.
As to what I said for the film that is further bolstered by the excellent selection of bonus materials spread across this two-disc release. Here's a quick rundown of what you'll find:
• "Portrait of Norman Granz" (4.5 minutes): A mini biography of the man behind the film.
• Portraits by David Stone Martin (1.5 minutes): This is literal drawings of famous jazz musicians by Martin.
• "About the Mili's Session" (13 minutes): A brief overview of the most famous session on the disc.
• "About Charlie Parker" (32.5 minutes): A series of glowing interviews about the late Mr. Parker
• Paul Nodler's Photos of the Mili's Session (15 and 3 minutes): There are actually three distinct photo galleries tucked in here. The first, running 15 minutes, focuses on the people, event, and background of the session, all the while having the actual "session" play in the bottom right corner. The next 3-minute gallery focuses more on the people involved, and when this ends, you go to another gallery with the manual controls to go from picture to picture.
• Jammin' the Blues (10 minutes): The original short film that started it all.
Also included is an introduction to the movie (4.5 minutes), narrated by Nat Hentoff. Obviously, this can be watched as a preface to the film or by itself later in the bonus materials.
I liked and learned a good deal from this material, especially the "About the Mili's Session." The only piece that was "too much" (too long) was "About Charlie Parker," where it felt quickly repetitive. Fans, however, probably will disagree.
Also included in the keepcase is a booklet with additional information about the recordings.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As a reviewer looking at material dealing with music, I've always placed extra emphasis on the audio portion of the disc. In that, Improvisation attempts to raise the bar by including three audio tracks. The default choice is the "original" mono mix, and it is the best choice. Also included is a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 and a DTS 6.0 mix. While the original track certainly lacks the clarity, crispness, separation, and quality of modern recordings, it is the only viable option as the other tracks sound phony and processed, especially the DTS—easily the worst DTS mix I have ever heard. These new mixes, in trying to force to other channels, ruins the timbre and adds a ghastly hollowness and echo to the music. The quality of the music does improve as the age of the material lessens, so the 1950 Mili's mix is the "worst" while the 1979 material is better, which consequently makes the remastered tracks not as hideous.
With the audio, there is an odd occurrence with the Mili Sessions. This tidbit is not hidden and is clearly mentioned several times. Due to the location of the filming, the music was recorded first and dubbed in later. So the film isn't really showing the musicians playing the music recorded and they had to sync to the recording. Sometimes it's not noticeable while other times it's horrible and knocks you out of the moment.
For the video portion, the packaging states that we have two aspect ratios mixed, both full frame and widescreen. Honestly, I didn't notice the transitions, so I am simply calling this DVD full frame. As with the audio, the video varies with age, but most of it is subpar, with all manner of dirt, marring, and poor color representation. But that's a moot point as this disc is all about the music not the video, so seeing these greats is well enough.
I didn't get as much out of Improvisation as I know someone can. That clearly doesn't make this film bad in any way, it just makes me too much of a rookie to get it all. I liked the music, but the true fan will really get it and enjoy it. My recommendation should be obvious by now: Improviation is for the true fans and historians. You'll love the footage, the music, and the bonus material. I believe it's a treasure chest of lost material that rightly needs to be seen. For those like me, I think you can skip it.
Improvisation is hereby found guilty of smoking.
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