Thelonious Monk And More: 'Jazz Icons' In Kinescopes

Dec 6, 2011
Originally published on August 3, 2012 2:18 pm

Jazz has long been a staple of European television programming. American musicians on tour frequently turn up on the tube, caught live or in a studio. That's partly because such shows are relatively cheap to produce, and because jazz makes for good cultural programming.

On two energetic sets with Art Taylor on drums, you can watch amazing tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin do two things he loved: playing at a crazy fast tempo, and then quoting a nursery rhyme as if it's all child's play. Griffin was on a festival stage in Provence at the time, wearing a stylish paisley sorta-dashiki — stylish for 1971. It's in a new box set in the Jazz Icons series: six DVDs shot for French TV between 1959 and '73, mostly in black and white. The John Coltrane and Art Blakey volumes are kinescopes: filmed images taken from video monitors. The rest were transferred directly from video.

John Coltrane headlines the new Jazz Icons DVD release, with a 1965 appearance by his classic quartet on the Riviera. If it doesn't seem so explosive, that's partly because Coltrane didn't move much when he played, no matter how passionate the music, and because his mid-'60s activities are so extensively documented. But you do get abridged live versions of music from Coltrane's then-recent albums A Love Supreme and Ascension.

For visual thrills, nothing in the new batch beats Rahsaan Roland Kirk's 1972 museum gig. It's fascinating to see the logistics of his playing several horns at the same time. He'll blow three saxes or two flutes at once, or play recorder with his nose and panpipes with his mouth. He'll finger tenor sax with one hand while clamping hi-hat cymbals with the other, or play two saxes while circular breathing so he doesn't have to come up for air. He can sound a little wheezy, like a bagpipe running down. But Kirk gets some wonderful frictive sounds, all the spectacle aside.

Some jazz people still detest the 1970s, when electric instruments became common and established stars began or kept on getting funky. But even skeptics might want to look at trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's 1973 French concert, with George Cables on electric piano and a little boogaloo in the beat. This tough quintet is a perfect setting for the trumpeter's swagger. You have to keep reminding yourself that this stuff was supposed to be destroying jazz.

The new Jazz Icons DVDs also include Art Blakey in 1959 with young lions Lee Morgan on trumpet and Wayne Shorter on saxophone, and Thelonious Monk playing a rare solo piano gig in 1969. Those two are notable not just for the music, but for bonus interview segments shot for French TV. The raw footage of Monk's interview is excruciatingly priceless: The pianist is in a cooperative mood, but the host keeps interrupting him, making him repeat his answers over and over, until he tells his interrogator exactly what he wants to hear; it's a mini Samuel Beckett play. It's always great to see Monk at work, with his idiosyncratic hands-low-to-the-keyboard attack — even if the camera is always pointed elsewhere when he miraculously bends notes on piano, just when you want to study his fingers. Eh, that's a quibble. There's plenty of good music in the new Jazz Icons box — good music to see and hear.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Jazz has long been a staple of European television programming. American musicians on tour frequently turn up on TV, caught live or in a studio. Partly that's because such shows are relatively cheap to produce, and because jazz makes for good cultural programming. A new set of six DVDs of Americans abroad is now out. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead takes a look.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Amazing tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin doing things he loved: playing at a crazy fast tempo, and then quoting a nursery rhyme as if it's all child's play. Griffin was on a festival stage in Provence at the time, wearing a stylish paisley sort of dashiki - stylish for 1971.

You can see it for yourself. Two energetic Griffin sets with Art Taylor on drums are in a new box in the "Jazz Icons" series: six DVDs shot for French TV between 1959 and '73, mostly in black and white. They're kinescopes: filmed images taken from video monitors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: John Coltrane headlines the new "Jazz Icons" DVD release, with a 1965 appearance by his classic quartet on the Riviera. If it doesn't seem so explosive, that's partly because Coltrane didn't move much when he played, no matter how passionate the music, and because his mid-'60s activities are so extensively documented. But you do get abridged live versions of music from Coltrane's recent albums "A Love Supreme" and "Ascension".

For visual thrills, nothing here beats Rahsaan Roland Kirk's 1972 museum gig. It's fascinating to see the logistics of his playing several horns at the same time. He'll blow three saxes or two flutes at once, or play recorder with his nose and panpipes with his mouth.

He'll finger tenor sax with one hand while clamping hi-hat cymbals with the other, or play two saxes while circular breathing so he doesn't have to come up for air. He can sound a little wheezy, like a bagpipe running down, but Rahsaan gets some wonderful frictive sounds, all the spectacle aside.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: Some jazz people still detest the 1970s, when electric instruments became common and established stars began or kept on getting funky. But even skeptics might look at trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's 1973 French concert, with George Cables on electric piano and a little boogaloo in the beat. This tough quintet is a perfect setting for the trumpeter's swagger. You have to keep reminding yourself that this stuff was supposed to be destroying jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: The new "Jazz Icons" DVDs also include Art Blakey in 1959 with young lions Lee Morgan on trumpet and Wayne Shorter on saxophone, and Thelonious Monk playing a rare solo piano gig in 1969. Those two are notable not just for the music, but for bonus interview segments shot for French TV.

The raw footage of Monk's interview is excruciatingly priceless. The pianist is in a cooperative mood, but the host keeps interrupting him, making him repeat his answers over and over, until he tells his interrogator exactly what he wants to hear. It's a mini Samuel Beckett play.

It's always great to see Monk at work, with his idiosyncratic hands-low-to-the-keyboard attack, even if the camera is always pointed elsewhere when he miraculously bends notes on piano, just when you want to study his fingers. Eh, that's a quibble. There's plenty of good music in the new "Jazz Icons" box - good music to see and hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for emusic.com and the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed the new "Jazz Icons" DVD box set featuring performances by Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Johnny Griffin, Brady Hubbard, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Thelonious Monk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.