By Raoul Hernandez,
2:12PM, Fri. Dec. 21, 2007
Watching Angus Young go nuclear on the first disc of the new Plug Me In ranks up there with anything on the gold standard of music DVDs, Led Zeppelin. Ace Frehley resurrecting Their Satanic Majesties Request, “2,000 Man,” on this summer’s Kissology Vol. 2, yet another freshly minted DVDnd (Vol. 3’s imminent). The Beatles’ Help!, Ramones’ It’s Alive 1974-1996, Nirvana’s Unplugged, plus last year’s Live! Tonight!! Sold Out!!! – in evolutionary order – spell out c-o-u-c-h this holiday season. Burrow.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Running Down a Dream commits four hours, same as more conventional cinematic marathons a la Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. To see or not to see: Blind Faith, London Hyde Park 1969, and Ghost's Metamorphosis (Chronicles 1984-2004), both longtime coffee table queue items at my house still waiting for Godot. Dylan, McCartney, and even my neglected Can DVD versus current multiplex attractions I’m Not There, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, and Joy(kill) Division strangulation, Control. When did music become required viewing?
Duke Ellington Live in ’58, that’s when.
The “earliest-known filmed full-length concert by one of the 20th Century’s greatest songwriters and bandleaders,” Duke Ellington Live in ’58 isn’t the top-billed entitlement from Naxos second set of jazz DVDs. That honor probably belongs to John Coltrane Live in ’60 & ’61 & ’65. Yet it resides in the Top 10% of any digital video device conceived for the medium. Transfer all previous VHS releases to DVD that the market can shelve, but the format has only now begun mining its mindblowing potential. Footage never dreamed of slowly creeps from dark corners such as Amsterdam to reiterate and in some cases reconceive music history. This chapter starts cold, Ellington already at the mic:
“Thank you very much,” he says adjusting his collar and tie. “All the kids in the band want you to know that we do love you madly.”
Ignore the unseen woman that bursts into laughter at the maestro’s live catch phrase, because the moment Ray Nance steps center stage with a plunger cupped to the mouth of his trumpet is when seeing is believing. Pinkie rings, manicured hands, cheeks sucking air, and Ellington at the piano – pounding, comping, conducting – visualizes a sound that human consciousness knows as ‘Big Band’ without, perhaps, ever having laid eyes on it. Close your mouth before you swallow a reindeer.
“Succeeding generations read scores and parts in [Ellington’s] archives, but no one can make them sound like [his] musicians.” Patricia Ward's excellent DVD liner notes no whereof they ink.
And there they sit, his musicians, fresh off Ellington’s rebirth at the Newport Jazz Festival two years earlier. In the cosmopolitan passivity of Clark Terry’s trumpet solo on “Harlem Air Shaft” you can almost see the color of brass. That’s Sam Woodyard beating his cymbals at song’s end so they’ll be no survivors. Harry Carney’s baritone sax on “Sophisticated Lady” stills the concert hall completely, steam through a manhole cover rising into the alley above it then fluttering back down to the wet pavement. Bassist Jimmy Wood tiptoes tastefully around it.
The gilded warmth of Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet on “My Funny Valentine” cements the viewer’s dawning disbelief, disconnect. His reed recreates your favorite Ellington recording, only it’s being birthed at that very moment – expressionless – and yet live, right in front of you, one time only. Quentin “Butter” Jackson’s trombone accompaniment manages the same, lacking only garlic and escargot. The 20th Century’s most romantic soundtrack appears as casually cavalier as a game of pinochle.
“Kinda Dukish” toys the gum-chewing bandleader, his right index finger repeatedly jabbing the piano, somehow daring it to something different. Melodies played with such ease, splashing into ragtime as a prompt to the band, crisscross in conversation right into “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” clarinetist and saxophones standing in a crescent moon around the mic and swinging like the Southern Pacific Railroad. Lark in the park: Ray Nance’s violin and Shorty Baker’s muted trumpet on “Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool.”
Cool’s all-time host, Ellington alto sax mainstay Johnny Hodges, does to “All of Me” what Marcel Marceau did for mime, his effortless honeycomb of tone dripping with natural sweetner, though it’s “Thing Ain’t What They Used to Be” that demonstrates his mirage appeal. Poker face in royal flush mode, Hodges’ visage betrays not a single emotion even as his instrument strips down to an insouciant smile. Again, the image's very existence in that sliver of time is almost hallucinogenic, Hodges alive and well in glorious black and white for other galaxies and civilizations to audit.
At second set’s start, drummer Woodyard goes ballistic on his featured “Hi-Fi-Fo-Fum,” the beatmaster coiled and controlled, escorting rock bash, soul groove, and blues bottom into the interrogation room and coming out all jazz. Long stick goes boom. All that’s left after that is a 10-song medley of Ellington toss-offs with titles such as “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Do Nothing ’Til You Hear From Me.” Ellington’s working in of “Sophisticated Lady,” Hodges blowing cotton candy on “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” Ray Nance scatting and showboating “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” and finally back to the pianist turning “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” into “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Funny, some of those tunes ring familiar….
Toward the 80th minute, tenor saxist Paul Gonsalves does his best to recreate his Newport solo heard round the jazz world, “Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue” catching air in his repeated exhale. Woodyard’s smackdown, Cat Anderson’s trumpet squeal, and after the credits roll, a brief, somehow haunting peak at the band breaking down the bandstand as Johnny Hodges offers the rarest of Ellingtonia: a full-on grin and laugh. It’s beginning to look at lot like Christmas.