Sunday, October 29, 2006

Legends of Jazz

Legends of Jazz: Season One, Volume One & Two
Hosted by Ramsey Lewis
LRS Media

Ramsey Lewis will be honored as one of the 2007 NEA Jazz Masters—well deserved recognition to be sure. In addition to being a great musician, famed for his rendition of “The In-Crowd,” Lewis has been a leading jazz evangelist as a broadcaster. He is the host and prime mover behind jazz’s regular return to broadcast television: Legends of Jazz on PBS. Unfortunately, if you are a New Yorker and do not suffer from insomnia, you probably have not seen Legends, since the local affiliate chose to run the program at 12:30 Thursday nights. We now have a chance to see what we’ve been missing with the release of Legends of Jazz: Season One Volume One and Volume Two on DVD and Blu-Ray with companion CD.

Legends follows a strict format: Ramsey Lewis introduces the show’s subject (the trumpet, Latin Jazz) with a minute’s worth of archival footage, each guest plays a tune, the guests play together, and then they jam on the shows theme with Lewis.

Vol. Two is probably the stronger installment, with the Blues segment being a particular surprise. Keb’ Mo’ unleashes his inner Robert Johnson in a knock-out performance of “Love in Vain.” This led to an interesting discussion of blues improvisation in the bonus conversation section. Keb’ Mo’ made the point: “If it’s seven and half, if it’s eight [bars], wherever it is, wherever it happens to be, when you’re phrasing, when you’re improvising in a solo in jazz or blues you have the right to enter a realm of infinite possibilities within a structure.”

For the American Songbook episode, John Pizzarelli and Jane Monheit were another good pairing, who genuinely seemed to enjoy each others work and company. Pizzarelli made a good choice in forgoing a traditional crooner number for an upbeat “I Got Rhythm,” showing off his fleet guitar work with brother Martin on bass.

The opening piano episode truly features legends: Dave Brubeck and Dr. Billy Taylor. Both are still playing at an appropriately lofty level. One does wish the show could have broken format a little, and given more time to the final jam. With Lewis on one piano, and Taylor and Brubeck four-handed on another, it was a piece of jazz history: two Jazz Masters and one to be, jamming together.

The first volume features more artists with a calculated “crossover” appeal, like Chris Botti and David Sanborn. If you can give them a pass, there is Clark Terry’s patented “Mumbles” and Roy Hargrove quite impressive on “Invitation.” In addition to Sanborn, Phil Woods keeps the fire of Charlie Parker burning brightly during the alto episode.

The red flag for jazz purists will be the “contemporary jazz” episode, with judiciously selected musicians who should have some cred outside of “smooth jazz:” George Duke, Lee Ritenour, and Marcus Miller. Duke had some telling comments on the current state of “contemporary” jazz radio, again in the bonus conversation section: “a big problem is that a lot of people that are young are beginning to think that what they hear a lot on the radio is really jazz, and that’s a problem.” Of the performances, Ritenour’s tribute to Wes Montgomery, “Wes Bound” is arguably the most straight ahead, and may surprise purists.

Throughout the show Lewis is good host, exuding an easy likeability most talk show hosts would envy. Also, check out an informative spot on the Jazz Foundation of America, featuring the great Wendy, in the trailer section. Legends gets props for spreading the word about a truly worthy organization.

Legends of Jazz is well produced showcase for America’s greatest original art-form. It looks good and sounds good. One hopes there will be many seasons to come, and WNET 13 will realize what it is missing. Until they do, we can enjoy Legends v. 1 and 2 on DVD and Blu-Ray.