Jazz Icons is a series of boxed sets of DVDs providing video documents of many of the major legends of jazz. Most of these recordings originated as either film or kinescope, but the recordings extend into the videotape era. The earliest recordings were made in 1957 (Ella Fitzgerald); and the most recent (thus far) were recorded in 1979 (Chet Baker).
The project is the brain child of David Peck, Phillip Galloway, and Tom Gulotta, who incorporated themselves as Reelin’ In The Years® Productions. The first four sets were released on an annual basis, distributed through Naxos, on the following schedule:
- 2006: Series 1
- 2007: Series 2
- 2008: Series 3
- 2009: Series 4
These are all still available on Amazon.com, as may be seen by following the above hyperlinks.
Due to the hard economic times, however, Reelin’ In The Years® Productions had to part ways with Naxos; and it looked like, as a result, the Jazz Icons project would have to be abandoned. This year, however, they were able to make a new deal with Mosaic Records, which has just announced the fifth set in the series. Those familiar with Mosaic know that they handle their own distribution, so do not expect to see this new series on Amazon.com. However, Mosaic has prepared a wonderful Web page for this new release, complete with video samples from each of the six DVDs in the set and (of course) a hyperlink for purchase.
All six of these DVDs consist of material from the Institut national de l’audiovisuel (INA), France’s largest television archive. The performers and years in which their performances were recorded are as follows:
- John Coltrane: 1965
- Thelonious Monk: 1969
- Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers: 1959
- Johnny Griffin: 1971
- Freddie Hubbard: 1973
- Rahsaan Roland Kirk: 1972
These were good years for jazz in France. Many of our most creative jazz musicians were based in Paris, simply because there were better opportunities for performance in Europe than there were in the United States. Indeed, only a handful of the interviews that Arthur Taylor published in his book Notes and Tones were conducted outside Europe; and four of the artists in the new DVD collection (Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Johnny Griffin, and Freddie Hubbard) are represented in Taylor’s book. (Taylor himself, on the other hand, is seen on the Griffin DVD.) So these are important performances captured at an important time. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the production values leave much to be desired. The quality of camera direction is highly variable. This is not surprising: Because there is so much variation in what may happen in a jazz performance, it is hard to prepare a camera crew the way, for example, Jordan Whitelaw could prepare for a video recording of a concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Nevertheless, one comes away with the impression that those who produced these videos had little experience in listening to jazz; and that can be frustrating to serious jazz listeners try to watch the products of their work.
However, the packaging by Reelin’ In The Years® Productions is equally frustrating, particularly compared with the impeccable effort that Mosaic puts into their audio products (particularly their extended anthologies, one of which I wrote about in my piece on Sam Rivers earlier today). At the very least one would hope to find a summary of the music being performed, the composers of those pieces, and the performers themselves in a common location; but this does not seem to have occurred to the designers of the packaging or the editors of the accompanying booklets. The quality of the accompanying notes is highly variable from one DVD to the next, and there are enough bloopers to make one wonder if any of it was ever edited. Serious jazz listeners definitely deserve better.
For all those disadvantages, however, there is still value in being able to see as well as to listen. The greatest beneficiary may be Kirk, particularly since the camera work provides a more-than-adequate account of how he handles his multiple instruments. Similarly, there is a delicious intimacy in observing Monk playing solo piano, apparently as a result of camera work that knew how not to be intrusive. Most frustrating, on the other hand, is the lack of a complete video account of the Antibes performance of A Love Supreme by the John Coltrane Quartet. More than half of the footage has not survived. On the other hand there is some compensation in that this Antibes video includes what may best be described as a “chamber” performance of “Ascension,” scaled down to Coltrane, McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), and Elvin Jones (drums). This performance took place about a month after the uninterrupted forty-minute full-out no-holds-barred free-blowing sessions in the Van Gelder Studios (where the quartet was joined by seven other musicians) that resulted in the original Impulse! recording. Those who remain perplexed by the sheer cacophony of that recording may find some “navigation aids” in the quartet version performed in Antibes.
For most listeners advantages like these are likely to outweigh the many frustrations cited above.