Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Granz and Mili: Improvisation

Norman Granz Presents Improvisation
Directed by Gjon Mili
Eagle Eye Media

Albanian Gjon Mili was an accomplished still photographer for Life magazine, so revered in Albanian-speaking regions, that in recent years a school for photography in Kosovo would be named in his honor. Mili also filmed what many regard as the greatest jazz film ever made—the 1944 Warner Brothers short Jammin’ the Blues, which would be nominated for a short film Academy Award. Six years later Mili and his collaborator, producer Norman Granz shot footage for a sequel that was assumed lost for years. It has been collected with Jammin’ and other Granz-produced concert footage of note in the new 2-DVD set Improvisation.

Improvisation is a historic film for several reasons, not the least being a sequel to Jammin’ the Blues. It also contains some of the only existing film footage of Charlie Parker in performance, which takes on added significance as his only recorded musical meeting with Coleman Hawkins (at least that we currently know of). One factor complicating the release of Improvisation was the difficulty of synching the film with the audio. Improvisation was shot in Mili’s photo studio, which was not sound-proofed. This required the audio track to be laid down in a separate studio, prior to the filming. As a result, there is a certain roughness to Improvisation. Mili never edited a final cut, so his ultimate vision remains unknown. However, Improvisation faithfully collects and collates his images with the fantastic recorded music, perhaps not seamlessly, but the overall effect does not distract from the music.

The music itself is amazing. Clocking in around fifteen minutes, the restored Mili sequence features the likes of Parker, Hawkins, Hank Jones, Lester Young, Bill Harris, Ray Brown, Buddy Rich, Flip Philips, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and Ella Fitzgerald. It starts with Jones’ lovely intro to “Ballade” (also used over the DVD menu) before Hawkins full-bodied tenor enters, caressing the melody before handing off to Bird. Hawk and Bird were actually a natural pairing, as Hawkins was evolving towards something much like bebop just as Parker burst forth onto the scene with his innovative approach. One can see the regard Bird has for Hawkins in Mili’s video. In fact, this rare footage does much to humanize Parker, too often mythologized for his extremes. Here, Mili’s camera captures his sensitivity and his enjoyment of his colleagues and their music.

Young and Edison are the two returning musicians from Jammin,’ getting their say on “Pennies from Heaven” and “Blues for Greasy.” Again, Improvisation can stake a claim to history, showcasing the titans of the hot and cool schools of tenor sax, with Hawkins and Young, respectively.

Of the additional performances on disk one, the Ellington is particularly noteworthy. “Blues for Joan Miro” was improvised for the Spanish artist at the Fondation Maeght Museum amidst a exhibition of the artist’s sculptures. With Sam Woodyard on drums and John Lamb on bass, the maestro demonstrates a rhythmic, percussive keyboard attack which might surprise some. Ellington never ceases to amaze.

The second disk contains silent rush footage and stills of the session by photographer Paul Nodler, giving further depth and context to the Mili sequence. The highlight of disk two though, unquestionably is the original Jammin’ the Blues. It hardly needs reviewing. The opening shot of Young’s porkpie hat should give chills to any jazz lover. It is also notable for a smoky rendition of “Sunny Side of the Street,” from Marie Bryant, a vocalist then in-between a stint with Ellington and an extended European sojourn, who should have been recorded much more than she was.

In Improvisation, two of Mili’s three short films are collected. (The third Jammin’ for Mili featured the Dave Brubeck quartet.) As such it is of historical importance. It takes on added significance as a rare document of Charlie Parker in live performance. The additional live footage of Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass are no small value-added bonuses. Improvisation is a heck of a collection, continuing Granz’s mission of presenting the improvised music with respect for the improvising artists.