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Cool clips, even if they often fly under the radar

November 20, 2005|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

DESPITE the obvious impact that MTV and videos in general have had in pop music, they have had minimal effect in jazz and world music -- in part because of the more niche-style following of those genres and in part because the cost of making videos is hard to justify in the case of artists who generally sell fewer than 100,000 copies of each album.

BET Jazz has worked hard to bring the images and the music to television audiences. But neither jazz nor world music has yet had a significant presence on commercial DVDs.

That's not to say, however, that what is arriving on DVD is in any way lacking in quality. And the very nature of jazz and world music -- unlimited to the immediacy of pop trends, focused primarily on music rather than visual spectacle -- opens a wide possible range of eclectic production styles.

Dizzy Gillespie

"A Night in Havana: Dizzy Gillespie in Cuba" (Docurama)

This is both a documentary and performance recording, enlivened by the great bebop trumpeter's ineffable combination of wit, wisdom and extraordinary musicality. Released as a theatrical film in 1989, it chronicles Gillespie's part in Havana's 1988 International Jazz Festival.

Viewed today, it has a remarkably visionary quality, as director John Holland presents a view of Cuban music and culture forecasting the images that would arrive a decade later via the popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club documentary and recordings. The difference is that the Gillespie trip illuminated a new generation of gifted young jazz musicians -- trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba among them -- to American audiences, whereas Buena Vista revived an older but similarly fascinating group of veteran Cuban artists.

What brings "A Night in Havana" alive -- beyond its compelling view of Cuba in the '80s -- is the presence of Gillespie. Leading, playing, challenging the musicians (his as well as the Cubans) through performances of "A Night in Tunisia" (in which he plays piano in a duet with Sandoval's trumpet), "Manteca" and a stunning duet on "Con Alma" with Rubalcaba, he is a constantly mesmerizing presence.

Interacting with his Cuban hosts, he talks about his bullfrog-cheek method of blowing the trumpet, his close relationship with Charlie Parker ("the same heartbeat"), and tosses in a possibly apocryphal tale about how his horn came to be bent into its famous shape by a gangster.

It's a marvelous visual and aural document -- Gillespie in all his entertaining grandeur, still in fine form less than five years before his death in 1993 at 75, happily immersing himself in the Afro-Cuban musical culture that had such a powerful impact on his own art.

Keith Jarrett

"The Art of Improvisation" (EuroArts)

The idea of a more focused look at a single artist -- exploring the music, the ideas and the persona of one of the music world's great pianist-composer-improvisers -- is a fascinating concept, given Jarrett's sense of privacy and his willingness to cooperate fully with the making of the DVD.

The results are impressive, especially when Jarrett's dark wit, his occasional acerbic moments and, most of all, his insights are on full display. At one point he speaks, surprisingly, of his admiration for Victor Borge's "ability to go from one thing to another ... part of that neuron speed ... that in improvising is so important." In addition to the revealing private passages with Jarrett, a concert segment features the Jarrett Trio (with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette), and 30 minutes of interview material with musical associates and family members.

Buddy Rich and His Band

"The Lost Tapes"

(Lightyear Entertainment)

This program is culled from tapes of a 1985 concert thought to have been lost in a fire. The audio restoration of the event, which includes a 16-minute-plus version of the Rich band's classic arrangement (by Bill Reddie) of music from "West Side Story," features 4.0 Channel Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround tracks.

The music, recorded two years before his 1987 death, displays vital, still powerful, remarkably virtuosic drumming from Rich, leading a state-of-the-art big band with strong solo contributions from saxophonist Steve Marcus and others. Substantial commentary from musicians and friends is also included. Despite otherwise flawless production, however, the newly mixed sound comes from a rock music perspective, overly emphasizing the bass, diminishing the sound of the trumpets -- and, amazingly, Rich's drumming in some spots -- to near inaudibility. Rich's music deserves a more accurate representation of the dynamic horn and drum-driven power of his fine band.

Charlie Hunter

"Solo Inventions" (Shanachie)

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