Putting the art of jazz on TV
By David Bianculli
If you want to see as well as hear rock-and-roll, TV – both broadcast and cable – is full of it. If you prefer soft rock and black music, cable TV offers specialized networks for those genres as well. If you enjoy video jazz, though, there’s still only one place to turn: PBS.
Tonight at 9, WHYY-TV (Channel 12) presents Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson on Stage at Wolf Trap, a Maryland Public Television production that comes closer than most televised concerts to capturing the act and art of making music, rather than just the music itself.
The distinction is simple to describe, yet difficult for television to achieve. The difference, though, is monumental, especially for viewers and listeners who enjoy the subtler aspects of musicianship.
Merely by turning on an audio recorder at a concert, any idiot can capture what can be called, for want of a better phrase, the sound of music. Intricacies may be lost if the recording mix is poor, but the feel of the event will be preserved relatively intact.
For television to enhance that experience, the directors and camera operators must be both knowledgeable and lucky. Filming or videotaping a visual record of a concert is no more difficult than making an audio recording, but the vast majority of TV and film concerts miss the interplay among musicians, and the close-ups of obvious inspiration, that raise such a program above the mundane.
Paul Simon, for example, was less than impressive as director of the 1980 film One Trick Pony – except during the musical sequences featuring his band and himself. On those occasions, Simon the musician knew just where and when to utilize his cameras. More energy is captured and more communication evident among the players than in 24 nonstop hours of MTV.
A more recent example, and one done for television, occurred during Patti LaBelle’s Thanksgiving-night TV special when she and Cyndi Lauper teamed for a duet of “Time After Time” that was good enough to raise goose bumps.
I’ve replayed a videotape of that number several times and have come to the conclusion that the camera crew and director deserve a lot of credit also. Both women moved around a lot, but nothing was lost.
For most of this Wolf Trap special, producer-director Phillip Byrd demonstrates the same mastery of craft. It’s not that cameras are forever swooping, or shots constantly changing – that doesn’t happen. Instead, the cameras are unobtrusive witnesses at all the right times.
During Peterson’s stunning opening set, for example, there’s a close-up of his fingers on the piano during a slow section of “There Will Never Be Another You.” His left hand floats above the keys for a moment and hovers for just a beat, but it’s a signal for his bassist to ease of. In another close shot during the same song, you can see a bead of Peterson’s sweat fall and splash on the keyboard.
This Wolf Trap program is brimming with such moments. Byrd’s cameras serve, almost, as critics: They stay back when the passages are routine or uninspired, yet instinctively come closer, and point in the right directions, when the music takes on a higher dimension.
Although Peterson’s opening set includes the crowd-pleasing “Caravan” and “Take the ‘A’ Train,” the pianist’s concentration and intermittent grins during the more mellow “There Will Never Be Another You” make it obvious that he is working hardest, and best, on that particular number.
when singer Fitzgerald and guitarist
It’s also fun to watch when there isn’t any visible interaction. Peterson and Pass have played together so many times over the years (their Porgy and Bess duet album is a masterpiece of jazz improvisation) that they rarely stumble, vamp, or throw signs. They just know.
A public-relations intermission (an interruption really) talks about Wolf Trap’s music-appreciation programs – but this Wolf Trap program is itself music appreciation. And music appreciated.