The new Jazz Icons series from Naxos is its fourth incarnation with an eight-DVD boxed set full of surprises as well as shedding beneficial light on under-rated performers. As always, the sound on these 10-plus hours of music is superb.
There’s one vocalist – but would you expect Anita O’Day (2.119015) to follow earlier Icon releases of Ella, Sarah and Nina rather than, say, Billie or Carmen? However, this archaeological treat discovered at two Scandinavian concerts show off her vibrato-free, horn-like tones, crafty phrasing manipulation and breezy confidence to great effect. The Norwegian session, featuring a French piano trio is best, highlighting sophisticated interpretations of standards including a brilliant up-tempo Tea For Two, a scat-happy Four Brothers and a lovely Yesterday/Yesterdays medley.
Then there’s Woody Herman (2.119016), taped in London, with his jazziest big band, the 1964 Swinging Herd. It’s an explosive thrill, the clarinettist boss sticking to old school playing but encouraging troops to revel in blistering pace and exquisitely-detailed section work. It’s compelling throughout, with close-ups of exciting bandsmen like tenor Sal Nistico and trombonist Phil Wilson but fewer looks at the A-grade rhythm team – pianist Nat Pierce, responsible for most charts, bass Chuck Andrus and drummer Jake Hanna.
Why Erroll Garner (2.119021) remains shunted aside in the piano pantheon is a mystery. His two 1960s concerts presented here are as good as 1956’s “Concert By The Sea”, showcasing dazzling improv out of the stride tradition, whirling enthusiasm - with a smile permanently on display - and close support from bass Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin. The self-taught keyboard wiz who couldn’t read music achieves superlative heights here with favourites such as Fly Me To The Moon and, of course, Misty.
Art Farmer’s hour of fame (2.119019) is a master-class on flugelhorn from 1964 that’s even better since bandmates are guitarist Jim Hall, bass Steve Swallow and drummer Pete Laroca. It’s a real keeper, as is the 90-minute Paris outing by Hammond B-3 organist Jimmy Smith (2.119018), a stunning display that underscores his position as organ jazz top dog.
Drummer Art Blakey’s 1965 Paris concert (2.119017) has a quintet billed as his New Jazzmen. Its stars are trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and pianist Jaki Byard on just four tracks that fill one hour. It’s Hubbard who’s the focus with his shiny tone, smooth delivery, restless imagination and ability to stir listeners while Byard offers outside playing to counter his straight ahead colleagues.
Tenor maestro Coleman Hawkins is not in great form at Belgian and British concerts totalling 140 minutes (2.119020), mostly preferring to coast through dreamy ballads rather than letting fly with rumbling roars despite strong company including Sweets Edison, who sounds best of all, Sir Charles Thompson and Jo Jones. Not until Stoned does the maestro awaken.
A bonus DVD with tunes by Garner, Smith and Hawkins comes with the set.