Thou shalt have icons

Pub date January 2, 2008
WriterAri Messer
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

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DVD "I put John Coltrane up in my headphones." So said innovative producer Madlib’s sped-up alter ego, Quasimoto, on 2000’s breakthrough hip-hop album The Unseen (Stones Throw). Although the brave crate diggers of hip-hop are doing their best to bring forth the horns of yore, as on local duo Zeph and Azeem’s phenomenal 2007 album Rise Up (Om), these days jazz is too often relegated to the unseen background or exploited by marketing giants that find ways to slap a few select jazz masters onto dorm room posters and cheap best-of holiday gift CDs. They want to sell the idea of John Coltrane to your headphones, and that’s the end of it: there’s no incentive to get out and see some live shows, whether jazz ensembles or DJ-MC combos, or to make music yourself.

So thank the most high for seven recent releases in the ongoing Jazz Icons DVD series (Reelin’ in the Years Productions). The series’s recently released second round showcases Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Dexter Gordon, Wes Montgomery, and Charles Mingus in cleanly remastered, previously unreleased video recordings from the 1950s and ’60s. The vivid black-and-white images offer an almost palpable sense of communication among the musicians, partly because the studio and stage settings are so carefully arranged — many of these performances were for strikingly lit, modernist-looking European TV shows — and partly because those cats played with their entire bodies. The up-close shots emphasize this in beautiful, often artfully angled ways.

During the three performances included on Montgomery’s disc, Live in ’65, the guitarist’s brain seems to be solidly in his right thumb, which he uses like a huge guitar pick with eyes as he feels out new rhythms on "Here’s That Rainy Day" and kicks out some unparalleled octave soloing on "Twisted Blues," evidence of what Carlos Santana, in his brief afterword to the liner notes, labels Montgomery’s "ability to transform thought into music." During Ruud Jacobs’s bass solo on "The End of a Love Affair," you can only see his right hand plucking the strings, not his left hand creating the notes, and it’s as if the entire group he’s playing with is moving the missing left hand together. Pianist Harold Mabern’s contributions to the Montgomery disc, on "Here’s That Rainy Day" and "Jingles," both recorded in Belgium with Arthur Harper on bass and Jimmy Lovelace on drums, typify his talent for leaping back and forth between waterfall chord clusters and bluesy droplet lines that dance intimately with Montgomery’s chordal romps. When I worked at the Stanford Jazz Workshop with an almost 40 years older Mabern, he was known as a man whose stories were as entertaining as his musical tutorials. The Belgium session captures his sense of musical storytelling before the music and the storytelling separated.

The Coltrane disc, Live in ’60, ’61 and ’65, consists of recordings from Germany in 1960 and ’61 and Belgium in ’65. The Belgian water must have been terrific. The DVD includes three tunes performed during Coltrane’s last appearance in Europe (he died in 1967), with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums; they sound — and look — like a release and cleansing of demons. "Naima" presents especially transcendent musical communication. You can’t call it a comeback, but put on a Jazz Icons DVD at a holiday party and watch as the room illuminates and people start to play together.