I love music almost as much as I love movies. That’s why I start every morning with a visit to Tin Pan Alley at www.youtube.com/user/petermintunmusic, where the gifted pianist, singer and musicologist Peter Mintun offers “A Different Tune Each Day.” I’ve also had some wonderful experiences in recent months watching DVDs that celebrate a wide variety of music I happen to like. These documentaries and performance videos don’t have marketing muscle behind them, so they depend on loyal followers and word-of-mouth. That’s why I’m happy to recommend them here, in the hope that I can expand that audience just a bit.
Sons of the Pioneers 75th Anniversary Show, Volume 1 is a live 2009 performance by the current incarnation of the classic country music group formed in the 1930s by Bob Nolan, Tim Spencer, and a young fellow who would become world-famous as Roy Rogers. The group has undergone many changes over the decades but the present-day group keeps the—
—spirit of the original alive quite nicely, and includes such perennials as Nolan’s “Cool Water” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” in its repertoire. I must admit I was critical at first, as the new ensemble can’t quite match the beautiful harmonies of the vintage Sons, but it didn’t take long for the good cheer and musicality of these professionals to win me over—as they do the audience at Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubador Theater in Nashville. There are sixteen songs in all, punctuated by reminiscences and observations about the Sons’ long history by thirty-year member Gary LeMaster, forty-year member Luther Nallie, and Ranger Doug (aka Douglas Green) of Riders in the Sky. Roy Rogers’ grandson Rob Johnson introduces the video, and performers Connie Smith and Charlie McCoy join the group on individual numbers. I wish the vintage film clips that appear as bonus material were of much better quality, but the concert itself is very enjoyable. You can learn more and purchase a DVD at www.sonsofthepioneers.org.
Perhaps it says something about me, or the company I keep, but I have several friends who are outstanding ukulele players. One of them, Jim Beloff, has been largely responsible for the revival of this lovely instrument, and with his wife Liz runs Flea Market Music, the primary destination for all things uke-related. (www.fleamarketmusic.com) Because of Jim I became acquainted with a charming new documentary called Mighty Uke, directed by Tony Coleman and produced by Margaret Meagher. It’s a cheerful chronicle of the ukulele’s history and remarkable comeback that spans the globe. The highlight for me was learning about the school program in Langley, Vancouver that introduces kids to strumming and, before long, has them playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” and “The William Tell Overture.” I don’t always pay attention to the “extras” on documentary DVDs but in this case I urge you to watch every bonus segment: each one is a delight. When you see Arab and Israeli children singing and playing a tune called “Ukuleles for Peace” I dare you not to smile. You can see more, and purchase the disc, at www.mightyukemovie.com.
The uke is just one of the surprising instruments you’ll hear in Bach & Friends, Michael Lawrence’s glorious celebration of the great master’s work in which musicians of all kinds not only play but talk about why Bach inspires them. From the vocalese of Bobby McFerrin and Ward Swingle (of the Swingle Singers) to the beautiful sounds of ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro and mandolinist Chris Thile, this elegantly executed documentary makes you want to hear more of each musician’s work. You’ll hear Bach played on water glasses, in resonant churches, and on stage by such artists as Joshua Bell, Béla Fleck, the Emerson String Quartet, Edgar Meyer, and many others, and hear from such passionate admirers as composer Philip Glass. There’s even an entertaining detour to learn about the infamous P.D.Q. Bach from Peter Schickele. I don’t listen to classical music on a regular basis, but I found this video both inspiring and enriching. You can play a variety of clips and purchase a copy at www.mlfilms.com/productions/bach_project.
I first saw Count Basie: Swingin’ the Blues when it was new, in 1992, and it has been reissued a number of times in various video formats, but when I received a new digitally-remastered DVD I decided to revisit it—and I’m glad I did. Directed by Matthew Seig, written by Albert Murray, and produced by Toby Byron and Richard Saylor, this hour-long tribute to the peerless pianist and bandleader is a joy from start to finish. With a generous array of vintage film clips, interview footage, and reminiscences from a number of veteran Basie band alumni (including Harry “Sweets” Edison, Al Grey, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Tate, Earle Warren, Jay McShann, and the great Joe Williams), Swingin’ the Blues reaffirms Basie’s eminence in the annals of jazz—and reminds us of what we’re missing today. One of a series of documentaries on jazz, this Basie disc is released by EuroArts and is available at Amazon.com.
If you love big band music and don’t already own the Warner Bros. Big Band, Jazz & Swing DVD set, you don’t know what you’re missing. This six-disc set is jam-packed with Vitaphone one- and two-reelers from the 1930s and even some MGM band shorts from the late 1940s, an unbelievable cornucopia of material. For those of us who spent years hunting for the occasional 16mm print and later, reveling in the amazing Vitaphone laserdisc set, the idea of a comprehensive DVD collection that covers so much ground is mind-blowing. The Warner Archive website even has a clip of Artie Shaw and his band playing their timeless hit “Begin the Beguine.”
I could go on and on about this collection. The “Rambling Round Radio Row” series would be worth the price of admission all by itself. In addition to performances by such musical luminaries as The Boswell Sisters, Kate Smith, and saxophone legend Rudy Wiedoft, you get to see such comedy performers as Col. Stoopnagle and Budd, Roy Atwell, who used his spoonerisms when he provided the voice of Doc in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Teddy “Blubber” Bergman, who changed his name to Alan Reed and became the voice of Fred Flintstone. There are legendary shorts like photographer Gjon Mili’s Jammin’ the Blues (1944) and the impossibly energetic Smash Your Baggage (1933) featuring the entertainers from Small’s Paradise in Harlem (including future trumpet star Roy Eldridge), who leave most vaudeville and tap-dancing presentations in the dust. The bands on display include Jimmie Lunceford, Cab Calloway, Freddie Rich, Larry Clinton, Ozzie Nelson, Henry Busse, Woody Herman, Hal Kemp, Stan Kenton, Desi Arnaz, and Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra, to name just a few. What a remarkable compilation.
And if you love this kind of music and want to hear new interpretations of it, you ought to know Don Neely’s Royal Society Jazz Orchestra. A visit to www.rsjo.com will open the portal to audio and video samples of this wonderful band and impel you to try some of their CDs. If you live in the San Francisco Bay area you can even see them in person.
One final musical note: the remarkable Richard Sherman, of Sherman Brothers fame, has recently released an unusual CD comprised of solo piano compositions. These are tunes he wrote for his own satisfaction over the years; fortunately, producer James Jensen, one of his most ardent fans (check out his Poppin’ Guitars CD), persuaded him to share these private musical musings with all of us in a disc called Forgotten Dreams. Tunes like “Ambition,” “Early Years,” and “Big City” have a delicate, often wistful quality about them, and like the more famous Sherman Brothers songs we all know, they are deceptively simple. This is a lovely footnote to a distinguished career. For more information go to www.solidairrecords.com.