DVD Reviews

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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