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Small screen distills the essence of jazz

'Legends of Jazz' lives up to its title, while other discs focus on New Orleans and Chicago stalwarts.

August 17, 2007|Howard Reich | Chicago Tribune

They are funky and strait-laced, avant-garde and retro, high-tech and way-way low.

If nothing else, this year's new wave of jazz DVDs shows practically every stylistic facet of the art form celebrating itself. From high-end production values to low-budget ventures, jazz clearly flourishes when it can be seen, as well as be heard. So whether the musicians are sleekly photographed by a three-camera crew or captured in herky-jerky images via a lone, hand-held device, the music seems to thrive on the small screen.

The most formidable release, by far, is "Legends of Jazz With Ramsey Lewis: Season One" (LRS Media), a lavishly produced, three-disc set documenting the freshman season of Lewis' nationally distributed public TV show. Though the discs make the minor shortcomings of the program plain to see, they're so beautifully indexed that viewers can skip the weak parts and head directly to the gems.

The conversation in Lewis' program, in other words, always has been its least persuasive facet, because the segments are brief and, generally, lightly anecdotal. Viewers hoping to savor the jazz equivalent of James Lipton's "Inside the Actors Studio" will be disappointed.

Yet, ultimately, that's a minor consideration in a series that's still new and, one hopes, might expand beyond its 30-minute slot to a full hour, allowing the kind of in-depth discourse that Lewis surely is capable of leading.

More important, however, "Legends of Jazz With Ramsey Lewis" lives up to its title, documenting the work of some of the most formidable masters still roaming the planet (as well as some lesser lights -- do we really need to immortalize the contributions of Chris Botti, John Pizzarelli and Jane Monheit?). To watch trumpeter Clark Terry playing his horn or singing his signature "Mumbles" scat routine in "The Golden Horns" show is to behold an innovator who influenced everyone from Miles Davis to Wynton Marsalis (both acknowledged as much).

Similarly, alto saxophone master Phil Woods evokes the bebop language of Charlie Parker as well as anyone playing today, albeit with his distinctively acidic tone in installment titled "The Altos." And the sequence in which vocalists Kurt Elling and Al Jarreau riff buoyantly on "Take Five" in "The Jazz Singers" stands as a highlight of this season.

Sumptuously filmed on a glowingly lighted set, "Legends of Jazz" performs a valuable service for the art form, documenting several of its leading artists with the high-toned TV production values they deserve but rarely receive. Bravo.

At the complete opposite end of the technical spectrum, "Shadow Vignettes: Odd Eye O Mumbo Jumbo" (Sessoms Music) spotlights one of the greatest -- and most elusive -- avant-garde jazz bands based in Chicago. Led by the formidable saxophonist and composer Edward Wilkerson Jr., Shadow Vignettes expresses the Afrocentric aesthetic of the Chicago-based Assn. for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) on a vast, orchestral scale. Because Shadow Vignettes performs so infrequently -- sometimes with years between appearances -- the DVD emerges as a precious musical document.

Granted, the camera work is about as rudimentary as it gets -- with a single lens often trained on the band for minutes on end. Yet the great roar of this music, as well as the heaven-storming solos of Wilkerson and the characteristically sensuous flute playing of guest James Newton, attests to the enduring significance of this ensemble.

Better still, the DVD includes interview footage of such AACM stalwarts as the late trumpeter/firebrand Ameen Muhammad, whose work is sorely missed on the Chicago avant-garde scene.

Finding an effective middle ground between the visual opulence of "Legends of Jazz" and the cinema verite style of "Shadow Vignettes," "Chicago Underground Trio: Chronicle" (Delmark) illuminates the appeal of this groundbreaking ensemble. Essentially, director Raymond Salvatore Harmon has matched the restless energy of the music with a comparably kinetic visual style. Split screens and quasi-psychedelic effects expressively reflect the music of cornetist Rob Mazurek, percussionist Chad Taylor and bassist Jason Ajemian.

Because each of these innovators happens to be an unusually adept multi-instrumentalist, the trio produces an extraordinarily complex sonic fabric. And though Harmon's visual alterations of the image sometimes become a bit overbearing, in certain passages one marvels at this DVD's vivid merger of sight and sound.

Percussionist-bandleader Kahil El'Zabar has been a key figure in Chicago's most innovative music circles for decades, his free-ranging art eloquently captured on "Ethnic Heritage Ensemble: Hot 'N' Heavy/Live at the Ascension Loft" (Delmark). Like many of his AACM colleagues, El'Zabar needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. His self-styled body movement, thundering chant and charismatic percussion work represent a kind of performance art unto itself.

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