Norman Granz Presents Improvisation (DVD)

Various Artists

LSP, 2007

REVIEW BY: David Bowling


Improvisation is a three-hour, two-disc DVD set that is not for the faint of heart. Rather, it is for the jazz lover and connoisseur as it mixes film, jam sessions, concert material, interviews and stills together into an important historical document on the history of jazz.

Improvisation presents the 1944 Oscar-nominated short film Jammin’ The Blues to show how serious it is about its task. Jammin’ The Blues was the first film to take jazz out of the musical shadows and move it into the mainstream without compromise, andImprovisation presents it in a cleaned up form and in its entirety.

Noted Life photographer/director Gjon Mili and legendary jazz producer and Verve label owner Norman Granz combined their talents to produce this extraordinary film, which revolves around an exploration through various instruments and dances. Not only did they produce Jammin', they also came together again in 1950 to shoot footage of leading jazz artists of the day, yet funding for the film folded and it sat on the shelves for 50 years (except for the performances that escaped on bootlegs and on a 1996 laserdisc). These complete, remastered sessions form the heart of my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Improvisation.

“Ballads” finds rare video footage of Charlie Parker improvising on his alto sax. Rarer still is the jam with Coleman Hawkins. It is interesting to see Parker and Hawkins keeping a wary eye on each other as they take their turns. “Celebrity” has Parker’s alto sax exploring the melody against a young Buddy Rich’s drumming. Rich takes off on an extended solo while Parker smiles throughout.

“Ad Lib” is not so much the exploration of a melody as it is the creation of a theme. Hank Jones on piano is at his creative best with support by Ray Brown on bass and Rich on drums.  Elsewhere, Lester Young and his tenor sax join Jones and Rich for the old standard “Pennies From Heaven.” The melody is twisted until it is unrecognizable and then returned to the original intent of the song.

“Blues For Greasy” is an ensemble piece. The casualness of the piece is wonderful to watch as the musicians float in and out of the song and sometimes just sit and watch each other. The great Ella Fitzgerald provides some scatting in the middle to provide a break.

If Improvisation had ended at this point it would be well worth the price, but Granz goes a step further by adding an hour of additional late 1970s concert material from his vaults. There is the seriousness of the Duke Ellington Trio with “Blues For Joan Miro” vs. the playfulness of Count Basie's “Nob’s Blues.” Joe Pass is presented on stage with no audience or back-up musicians, just him and a guitar, and his exploration of “Ain’t Misbehavin” is brilliant as he twists the melody in odd directions before returning to it.

Fitzgerald also returns, 29 years after her first performance on the disc, giving us the mature Ella singing “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me” and “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.” Also, Oscar Peterson's “Ali vs. Frazier” from the 1977 Montreal Jazz Festival is aptly named, as it features a showdown between Eddie Lockjaw Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.

Improvisation is a jazz treasure trove of rare performances by a Hall of Fame roster. Most of the performers are long gone, but Improvisation brings them back to life and shows them at their creative best. It is a package that can be viewed and listened to over and over again with new surprises constantly being found. Improvisation is a must for any jazz enthusiast.

Rating: A

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© 2007 David Bowling and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of LSP, and is used for informational purposes only.