DVD: Jazz Casual – Count Basie / Dizzy Gillespie / John Coltrane (1961-1968)

December 15, 2014 | By


JazzCasual_BasieGillespieColtrane_sFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: n/a

Label: Rhino

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  2001

Genre:  Jazz / Concert

Synopsis: Three episodes of the classic PBS series Jazz casual featuring Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane in very informal settings performing and occasionally discussing their music.

Special Features:  Optional Mono and Stereo mixes.




Between roughly 1961-1968, syndicated jazz columnist Ralph Gleason hosted a half-hour show on San Francisco’s KQED, part of NET (National Educational Television, which eventually became today’s PBS station), where various jazz notables from the past, present, and emerging powerhouses would perform and chat (if they desired) with Gleason about their art form.

Gleason’s presentation was very lo-fi, but even if there had been funds for chic sets, there’s a sense Gleason would’ve poo-pooed the concept and kept things simple and lean, so the music and its masters would remain central at all times.

The beauty of these shows, videotaped in B&W onto 2” stock, is that with little visual ornamentation, the entire setting is truly casual – everyone’s relaxed, and Gleason’s respect and admiration for his guests is genuine.

Rhino released Jazz Casual on tape and later DVD around 2001 (the transfers have a copyright notice of 1995), and the volumes tended to gather three shows from various broadcast dates onto one disc. The series was eventually released by Jazz West DVD in a separate 3 and 4-episode discs, with episodes differently ordered, and in a mega-set which assembled the surviving 28 episodes from a supposed 31 episodes that were broadcast irregularly over an eight year period.

Like Jazz Scene USA, a similar show in which mega-talents were showcased, Jazz Casual is long out of print, and the series is ripe for a revisitation on DVD – if anyone cares anymore, or is willing to address what may be complex rights issues.

Music rights actually come into the discussion in the “Basie Reminisces” episode from August 21, 1968, that launches the first of three programs on this disc. The inimitable Count Basic reflects on the blues which segue to short performances, and during his light & easy conversation with Gleason the great bandleader recalls the early days when it was fine to play ‘whatever you wanted’ in a club. The eloquent composer and pianist brands his style of playing as ‘old fashioned,’ but Gleason points out the smooth rhythms and clean solos that characterize his sophisticated style, and the quartet’s intimate performances on the show.

Basie also describes his approach to arranging as keeping things simple, which itself may be an overly modest assessment of his gift as composer, musician, and leader; one who’s generous with his band mates in giving them time to shine, and adding their own unique moments to a classic Fats Waller song or an old standard.

Being the sixties, Gleason chain smokes throughout the show, the thick plumes of smoke drifting against the camera lens and wafting in front of Basie when he’s performing and chatting, and at certain intervals Basie himself reaches for his own cigarette from a table that has water, and a wedge of cake.

Although light stands and mic booms are plainly visible, they form a background pattern of shadows and abstract lines around Basie, and members Sonny Payne (drums), Freddie Green (guitar), and Norman Keenan (bass).

The show’s intro / outro music is credited to Basie, and although parts of Gleason and Basie’s discussions were trimmed to keep the show under 29 mins., the music is left intact, largely because most of the tunes range from brief samplings to brisk renditions.

The second episode seems to be from the early to mid-sixties, and features the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet with its leader (trumpet), a very young Lalo Schifrin (piano), Bob Cunningham (bass), Chuck Lampkin (drums), and Leo Wright (alto sax & flute).

This time there is a set where the band is framed by a series of rear panels with jazz instrument sketches, and to the left side are a pair of seats where Gillespie discusses the benefits of knowing piano in addition to one’s own instrument, and developing a firm grasp of harmony.

Among the musical highlights is “Toccata” from Gillespiana, Schifrin’s breakthough album with its beautifully folded-together concepts from jazz, classical, African and Latin American music.

The show’s cameraman also has more wiggle room to set up shots not unlike Jazz Scene USA, where two or three musicians are neatly framed during a performance. The camera then pulls back, wipes, or tracks towards the next soloist, and edges of the boom mic are sometimes visible.

Like Jazz Scene USA, the focus is the musicians performing, with lengthy improv sections and solos. Instead of breaking up pieces with interview material, Gleason isolates his one-on-one with Gillespie after the first tune, and lets the band play through the rest of the show. The wrap-up is a little abrupt because it’s a splice edit of Gleason addressing the camera, but the show ends with the last bits from the band’s final set.

In the third and final episode from December 7, 1963, Gleason merely provides an intro and short explanatory material between the lengthy pieces performed by the John Coltrane Quartet, which includes Trane (soprano and tenor sax), Jimmy Garrison (bass), Elvin Jones (drums), and McCoy Tyner (piano).

The lack of any interview material is probably due to Trane wanting to let the music speak for itself, and each of the three pieces provide at least one lengthy solo for each band member. With the exception of a laid-back Jones, everyone plays in a state of deep concentration, focusing on solos while the studio lights elevate the temperature. (Bassist Garrison is almost melting under the hot lights.)

Unlike the prior episodes, there’s no set – just a corner sound stage where cameras, wires, and a large mic boom pedestal are visible to the right, and a storage area appears to the left with assorted set décor and panels leaning against a wall, and a lady watching the band play from an old living room chair.

The episode order in Rhino’s set is intentional – the flow of music start slow & easy, moves into rhythmic modernism with moments of lightness, and conclude with a heavy, cerebral freer style which demands the listener’s concentration.

The DVD has no extras, although selectable original mono and rechanneled stereo are in the Special Features menu. The fake stereo is okay, but there’s more that a hint of drainpipe reverb typical of rechanneled audio; you’ll have to manually select the mono option, as the DVD starts off in faux stereo.



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB — Wikipedia Entry
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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