DVD Reviews

  • “Bill Evans: Time Remembered” (Reel House download/DVD) At the beginning of Bruce Spiegel’s documentary, “Time Remembered”, Chuck Israels says that he is constantly asked “What was Bill Evans really like?” Israels, who spent five years as Evans’ bassist, shakes his head and replies “Damned if I know”. Thomas Cunniffe reviews the DVD, which attempts to uncover some of the mysteries surrounding this iconic musician.
  • “Brownie Speaks!” (Glanden Productions) Nearly 60 years after his death, Clifford Brown is still regarded as one of the greatest trumpeters in jazz history. For the past two decades, Don Glanden has researched Brown's life and music, and interviewed many of Brown's friends and colleagues. The results have been gathered into a new documentary, Brownie Speaks, and as reviewer (and longtime Brownie fan) Thomas Cunniffe writes, the film is loaded with new information about Brown's life and career.
  • “I Called Him Morgan” (Filmrise DVD; Netflix/Amazon stream) On a winter night in 1972, Lee Morgan's estranged common-law wife, Helen, shot and killed the trumpeter in the middle of a packed nightclub. The details of the murder have been elusive for decades, but a new film by Kasper Collin, I Called Him Morgan uses an audio interview of Helen and the memories of Lee's musical colleagues to describe the events leading to the trumpeter's death. Thomas Cunniffe reviews the film, recently issued on DVD.
  • “Icons Among Us: Jazz In The Present Tense” (Indiepix) It's the quietest revolution I've ever seen states Terence Blanchard in this award-winning documentary about the current jazz scene. Thomas Cunniffe examines both its feature film version and the original 4-hour broadcast edition.
  • “Jaco” (Iron Horse/MVD Visual) The flamboyant electric bassist Jaco Pastorius was an anomaly in jazz history. Since his instrument has generally gone out of favor in jazz circles, Pastorius' main influence has been within rock bands. A new documentary, authorized by the Pastorius family, was produced by Metallica's Robert Trujillo, and features an equal number of rock and jazz musicians as interviewees. Thomas Cunniffe reviews the 2-DVD set of Jaco, noting that the film discusses Jaco as a person well, but gets a few key facts wrong.
  • “Jazz and the Philharmonic” (Okeh CD/DVD) With contemporary music styles cross-fertilizing before our very ears, the training of young musicians requires instruction in an ever-widening range of genres. A gala concert featuring the talented students, alumni and mentors from three pioneering music education programs has just been released as the CD/DVD set (and PBS special), Jazz and the Philharmonic. Thomas Cunniffe reviews the discs.
  • “Jazz Icons” Series 5 box set (Reelin’ In The Years/Mosaic) After a two-year gap, Reelin’ in the Years has released their long-awaited fifth series of Jazz Icons. The new set features French performances by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (with Lee Morgan & Wayne Shorter), John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Johnny Griffin, Freddie Hubbard and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Thomas Cunniffe reviews the set.
  • “Keep On Keepin’ On” (Anchor Bay DVD) Clark Terry is one of jazz's greatest mentors. There's hardly a jazz musician working today that hasn't been touched by this gentle, wise giant. A new documentary, Keep On Keepin' On, captures Terry and his gifted student, pianist Justin Kauflin, as they each face numerous obstacles. Thomas Cunniffe provides a sneak preview in this special edition of Sidetracks.
  • “Masters of American Music” box set (Naxos/EuroArts) Released just in time for the holidays is Naxos/EuroArts' 5-DVD box set Masters of American Music. Thomas Cunniffe reviews the set which includes profiles of Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk and Billie Holiday as well as an overview of the music The Story of Jazz.
  • “Miles Ahead” (Sony Classics DVD) Don Cheadle's long-awaited Miles Davis film, Miles Ahead is far from a typical biopic. It requires its audience to come in with prior knowledge of Davis' life. However, it is a remarkable film, especially for a first-time director like Cheadle. In this DVD review, Thomas Cunniffe marvels at the way Cheadle juxtaposes various time frames from Davis' career into the same scenes.
  • “Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie” (ECM DVD) For viewers with no background knowledge of its subject, the new documentary Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie is an amiable snapshot of the guitarist in his later years. However, anyone with previous knowledge of Abercrombie's triumphs will find numerous problems with the film. Thomas Cunniffe tells you what the film doesn't in this month's DVD review.
  • “Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise” (MVD Visual) The bright costumes and wild improvisations of Sun Ra and his Arkestra made them a natural for film. Although several documentaries (and one very strange feature film) were made of the group, no filmmaker found the essence of Ra and his sidemen as well as Robert Mugge in his documentary A Joyful Noise. Thomas Cunniffe reviews a beautifully restored DVD edition of the film in this month's DVD review.
  • “Syncopation” (Cohen Film Collection) Jazz and the movies are America's two greatest contributions to the arts, but Hollywood rarely gets it right when jazz musicians are portrayed on the silver screen. Syncopation, a 1942 film directed by William Dieterle has been issued on home video for the first time, and while it's not the classic that the trailer claims, it is considerably better than most Hollywood jazz films. As a bonus, the DVD and Blu-Ray editions contain nine exquisitely restored jazz shorts featuring Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Artie Shaw, Jack Teagarden and Cab Calloway, and reviewer Thomas Cunniffe states that these films are more entertaining than the feature.
  • “The Girls in the Band” (Artist Tribe/One Step) With her new film, The Girls in the Band, director Judy Chaikin achieves the near-impossible: a comprehensive history of women jazz instrumentalists in under 90 minutes. Thomas Cunniffe reports that the film contains more information about the multi-racial International Sweethearts of Rhythm than many earlier sources, and it offers an admirable survey of current female instrumentalists.
  • “The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith” (Kino/Lorber) In the midst of Manhattan's wholesale flower district, painter David X. Young, composer Hall Overton, and photographer W. Eugene Smith hosted a loft space for jam sessions and rehearsals. Many of New York's finest jazz musicians spent time at the loft, and Smith made tape recordings and took photos of the proceedings. Much of the material has survived and it provides the visual and aural content of the new documentary The Jazz Loft, According to W. Eugene Smith. Thomas Cunniffe provides his thoughts on the film.
  • “The Zen of Bennett” (Sony Music/RPM/Netflix) There have been plenty of documentaries made about Tony Bennett, but the latest film on the singer, The Zen of Bennett, assumes that the viewers know his biography, and focuses instead on the philosophy that makes him such a compelling artist. Thomas Cunniffe reviews the DVD version.
  • “This is Gary McFarland” (Century 67) When Gary McFarland died in 1971, he had been praised as one of the 1960s most innovative jazz arrangers and vilified by the same critics for incorporating rock and Brazilian music into his scores. A new documentary, This is Gary McFarland, attempts to restore McFarland's lost fame. In his DVD review, Thomas Cunniffe notes that the film takes too narrow of an approach to McFarland's wide musical horizons.
  • Anatomy of a Murder (Criterion) By 1959, Duke Ellington had appeared in several films with his orchestra, but had never been commissioned to write a film score. So when an offer came from Otto Preminger to score “Anatomy of a Murder”, Ellington accepted the assignment. Thomas Cunniffe reviews Criterion's new DVD edition which offers an audio option that makes the music stand out.
  • Celebrating Pittsburgh Jazz Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is a small city when compared to metropolises like New York, Boston and Philadelphia. However, the rich musical culture of the city’s black community produced an extraordinary number of jazz masters, including Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Roy Eldridge, Billy Strayhorn, Kenny Clarke, Billy Eckstine, Erroll Garner, Art Blakey, Ahmad Jamal and George Benson. Thomas Cunniffe reviews a new documentary and a new book which celebrate the jazz heritage of this great city.
  • Charles Lloyd: “Arrows into Infinity” (ECM) Under the right conditions, jazz--like many other art forms--can take on a spiritual quality that can affect both the creators and audience. Charles Lloyd has communicated that spirit in performances spanning half a decade. A new film co-directed by Lloyd's wife, Dorothy Darr, examines Lloyd's career primarily through the effect he has had on fellow musicians and audiences. Thomas Cunniffe reviews the DVD edition, which includes notes from the filmmakers and a full Lloyd/ECM discography.
  • Chick Corea/Gary Burton: “Live at the Munich Philharmonie” (Naxos/ArtHaus) Now approaching the 40th anniversary of their first duo album, Crystal Silence, Chick Corea and Gary Burton are still making music together, with a new album due in September. Thomas Cunniffe reviews a recently reissued DVD featuring the duo in a 1997 concert from Munich.
  • Ella Fitzgerald: “Best of the BBC Vaults” (Voyage/Universal) Ella Fitzgerald was a regular presence on television during the 1950s and 1960s. Best of the BBC Vaults, a CD/DVD set just issued in the US, but released three years ago in the UK, collects four classic Fitzgerald TV appearances from 1965-1977. Thomas Cunniffe reviews the collection.
  • Erroll Garner: “No One Can Hear You Read” (First Run Features) In the 1950s, Erroll Garner was ubiquitous: his recordings (on several different labels) were everywhere, and he frequently appeared in concerts and on television. But Garner's style didn't fit easily into accepted jazz genres and hardly any pianists played exclusively in his style. Atticus Brady's new documentary No One Can Hear You Read attempts to revitalize the legacy of this self-taught wonder. Thomas Cunniffe reviews the DVD.
  • Fred Hersch: “My Coma Dreams” (Palmetto) Like most people, Fred Hersch doesn't remember his dreams. But the dreams he envisioned while in a medically-induced coma were so vivid, he described them in detail after he regained consciousness. Those dreams, and the story of his illness, are part a of a hybrid jazz/theatre work called My Coma Dreams. Thomas Cunniffe reviews the newly released DVD of a performance at Columbia University.
  • Late Bloomers Although they were born just seven years apart, saxophonists John Coltrane and Frank Morgan reached their artistic zeniths in the last years of their lives. Each of these tremendous saxophonists are the subjects of new documentaries, and Thomas Cunniffe reviews both discs, noting that the films deal with the subject of drug addiction in different ways, but still let their subjects shine.
  • Oscar Peterson: “Easter Suite” (Naxos/Art Haus) While his Easter Suite was considered one of his major compositions, Oscar Peterson never made a commercial recording of the work. In time for Holy Week, Naxos/Art Haus has issued a DVD featuring Peterson's only recording of the piece, made for The South Bank Show. Thomas Cunniffe reviews the disc.
  • Randy Brecker Quintet: “Live 1988” (MVD DVD/CD) Watching the Randy Brecker Quintet's 1988 performance at the long-defunct club Sweet Basil is like traveling in a time machine. Certain things are familiar and yet it all looks so different. Still, as Thomas Cunniffe reports, the music holds up very well and the video master has been especially well-preserved. And while portions of this music were previously issued on LP and CD, there are several instances where the DVD differs from the earlier audio discs.
  • Ray Charles: “Live in France 1961” (Reelin’ In The Years/Eagle Vision) Recorded during his first trip to Europe, the Ray Charles DVD Live In Europe 1961 is an important historical document. Thomas Cunniffe reviews the disc, which captures revealing glimpses of Charles' emerging status as a polished stage performer.
  • Sonny Rollins: “Saxophone Colossus” (MVD Video) Most jazz documentaries spend the majority of their time dwelling on the past. However, Robert Mugge's 1986 film Saxophone Colossus caught Sonny Rollins in a particularly creative period. Mugge splits his film between an outdoor combo concert in upstate New York and the Tokyo premiere of Rollins' original concerto for saxophone and orchestra. Through it all, the saxophonist captivates with his boundless energy and creativity, Thomas Cunniffe reviews this new home video edition of the film, which features 4K remastering and Dolby sound.
  • Thelonious Monk: “Paris 1969” (Blue Note) Thelonious Monk's tour of Europe in late 1969 was the last time he would travel the Continent with his own group. Despite a number of setbacks, the quartet was in great form for its appearance at Paris' Salle Pleyel. As Thomas Cunniffe reports, the film of this concert has circulated among collectors for years, but Blue Note's new DVD may be the first legitimate release of this material.
  • Tubby Hayes: “A Man in a Hurry” (Mono Media/Treatment/Proper) To commemorate the 80th anniversary of Tubby Hayes' birth, there's been several new CD reissues, a long-awaited full-length biography and now a documentary on the British tenor sax giant. Hayes lived a fast and full life before his passing at the age of 38, which makes the documentary's title, A Man in a Hurry all the more appropriate. Thomas Cunniffe offers his thoughts on the film in this month's DVD review.
  • Woody Herman: “Blue Flame: Portrait of a Jazz Legend” (Jazzed Media) In celebration of Woody Herman's upcoming centennial, Graham Carter has produced a 110-minute documentary chronicling the history of the famed bandleader. Thomas Cunniffe reviews the DVD, noting that the film has interviews with many distinguished Herman alumni and several rare film clips.