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Giving a Little, Network TV Takes Jazz

January 03, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What does it take to put a program of jazz music on network television? Apparently a high tolerance for compromise.

"Nissan Presents: A Celebration of America's Music" manages to find space to feature an impressive lineup of authentic jazz artists. But it does so in a manner clearly designed to showcase the music in a commercially palatable setting.

Like opening with Aretha Franklin singing a few gospel-tinged bars of "Skylark." Like including Larry King, Richard Belzer and Benjamin Bratt (from "Law & Order") among the presenters. Like using vocals in seven of the nine segments, including those dedicated to Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.

The dumbing down of jazz? Not quite, but at times pretty close.

Viewed as a whole, the program's intentions are good, with tribute numbers honoring Dave Brubeck, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Wes Montgomery, Wayne Shorter and Ella Fitzgerald in addition to Monk and Gillespie. And, sprinkled around the numerous vocals, there are brief solos from, among others, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, flutist James Moody, alto saxophonist David Sanborn, fluegelhornist Clark Terry, bassist Ron Carter, guitarists George Benson and Lee Ritenour, and pianists Diana Krall, Jacky Terrasson, Eliane Elias and Herbie Hancock.

*

The operative word, however, is "brief," and far more space is given to an uneven series of vocals: on the downside, Benson straining to hit the high notes on "A Night in Tunisia" and Franklin doing a version of "How High the Moon" that includes a disastrous attempt at scat singing; on the upside, Al Jarreau in a sprightly duet on "Take Five" with Brubeck, and Nancy Wilson with a svelte and moody rendering of "Midnight Sun."

The attractive Jobim medley, however, benefits from Elias' sultry voice, and Krall and Nnenna Freelon manage to sustain the essence of Monk in their vocal romps through "In Walked Bud."

But the only two segments that escape vocal intrusion are the Montgomery set (with Benson and Ritenour playing impressively) and an splendid version of Wayne Shorter's "Over Shadow Hill Way" performed by Shorter with a solid all-star band.

So is the cup half empty or half full? Should we be pleased to get any jazz at all on network television, regardless of the compromises? For Thelonious Monk Jr., director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, which participated in producing the show, the answer is "half full," especially since the program is now in its second consecutive year.

"The fact that we were able to put a jazz show on in prime time and they said, 'Let's do it again,' is what matters," Monk said.

True enough. But the music matters too. And, to his credit, Monk has at least managed to eliminate the dancers from this year's installment of "A Celebration of America's Music." Perhaps next year there can be a few fewer singers, as well, and space for players such as Moody, Sandoval and Terrasson to do more than play eight-bar cameos.

* "Nissan Presents: A Celebration of America's Music" airs on ABC-TV tonight at 9 p.m.

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