In June 2006, for the first time in more than forty years, live jazz music returned to national television with "Legends of Jazz." A new weekly performance series on PBS hosted by jazz great Ramsey Lewis, each show would have a theme ("The American Songbook," "The Piano Masters," "Latin Jazz," etc.) and feature live and uncut musical performances by top artists. And in the span of only a few short episodes, "Legends of Jazz" certainly lived up to its name. Appearing together -- some for the first time -- guests included Tony Bennett, Al Jarreau, Keb' Mo', David Sanborn, Chris Botti and Robert Cray.
Though a complete season set of "Legends of Jazz" hasn't yet hit a next-gen format, indie distributor LRS Media has chosen a "highlight" reel of sorts, dubbed 'Showcase,' to kick off its support of the Blu-ray format. The disc includes thirteen performances, all shot in high-def and recorded in surround. Though diehard fans of "Legends of Jazz" likely will leave not fully nourished, for a relative jazz novice like myself, it offered a very nice introduction to a genre and roster of performers I had only passing familiarity with.
Admittedly, my current musical knowledge of jazz extends to a couple of old Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald collections, and a Sade CD. But I enjoyed every one of these performances, though some more than others. Since I'm not much of a "scat" man, I generally preferred the slower, more moody numbers. Chris Botti's take on the standard "My Funny Valentine" was elegant, even sans vocals, while "Mumbles" turned me into a Clark Terry fan, even though I'd never heard of him before. Jane Monheit gives a lovely vocal performance on "They Can't Take That Away from Me," and then there is Robert Cray, who I just love to watch play, along with Keb' Mo', tearing through "12 Year Old Boy." Loved it.
My only complaint? At only 55 minutes, 'Showcase' is just too darn short!
The full suite of performances include: 1. Al Jarreau and Kurt Elling, "Take 5" / 2. Chris Botti, "My Funny Valentine" ' 3. Marcus Miller, George Duke and Lee Ritenour, "The Panther" / 4. David Sanborn and Phil Woods, "Senor Blues" / 5. Chick Corea, "Armando’s Rhumba" / 6. Robert Cray and Keb' Mo' "12 Year Old Boy" / 7. Benny Golson, "Killer Joe" / 8. Ivan Lins, "The Island" / 9. Clark Terry, "Mumbles" / 10. Jane Monheit and John Pizzarelli, "They Can’t Take That Away From Me" / 11. Dave Valentin, "Obsession" / 12. Dave Brubeck and Billy Taylor, "Take The ‘A’ Train" / 13. Ramsey Lewis, "Dear Lord"
LRS presents 'Legends of Jazz' in its original 1.78:1 broadcast aspect ratio, and 1080i video as it was originally filmed (the codec is MPEG-2). The quality is right on target with most in-studio high-def presentations I've seen, such as Rave's "Soundstage" series. In other words, it's pretty top-drawer HD, with the kind of ultra-clear, you-are-there look that film-based transfers just don't match (before you jump down my throat, it never fails -- whenever I bring over an HD newbie to show off the technology, inevitably shot-on-HD material, such as the recent space shuttle launch on the Discovery HD network, blows them away far more than any film-to-HD transfer I could show).
What always impresses about HD are the colors. The 'Showcase' set is bathed in blues, purples and reds, and looks great. Hues are very saturated but clean, with very little in the way of chroma noise (I did detect some on only the most intense reds and pinks, but it is not distracting). Blacks are perfect, and contrast excellent -- this image really pops. Sharpness, too, is mighty fine, with only some darker areas of the picture looking a little soft. However, I have to knock off a half star or so due to some compression artifacts. I noticed some blockiness and posterization in some shots. For example, during the Ivan Lins number, there is a profile shot that slowly tilts down from his face to his fingers, where some color banding was readily noticeable. Otherwise, 'Showcase' excels.
LRS also makes history by being the first distributor to offer a Dolby TrueHD track on a Blu-ray release. If I'm not mistaken, 'Showcase' is the first, which gave me a thrill when I plopped into my PlayStation 3 and fired it up. Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and PCM 2.0 stereo options are also offered, each encoded at 640kbps.
The TrueHD track is the clear winner. I'm no audio engineer and certainly not a musical genius, but what a truly magnificent recording this was. The warmth and richness of the entire frequency range is excellent. Bass is deep and rock solid -- there doesn't seem to be a vibration out of place. Separation across the front soundstage is also terrific -- I could locate specific instruments in the mix, yet the sum still feels organic and cohesive. The surrounds, however, are not overt, or at least overdone. Though select instruments are presented with full dynamic range, I honestly felt they were chosen a bit arbitrarily. Crowd noise is also deployed to the rears, though for the majority the musical performances command center stage.
One note, though: the standard Dolby Digital track disappointed me due to what seemed to be a weak center channel. I checked and re-checked all the settings on my receiver, but vocals still sounded a bit echo-ey and distant. Certainly they paled in comparison with the TrueHD track. I hope this was just a technical problem with my set up, and not an encode problem with the disc (no such problems with vocals on the PCM stereo track, by the way).
Extras on 'Showcase' are slim, and all text-based. There is a four-minute animated Photo Gallery set to music; it features on-stage stills, plus a few behind-the-scenes candid s. The Artist Biographies are all one-pagers with very basic info. Finally, there are also some Previews for other LRS Media titles.
However, I have to give points to the company for including a very nice full-color, 12-page booklet that features extended liner notes on each song, as well as introductions from Ramsey Lewis and the disc's producer, Larry Rosen. I love having these little collectible extras, and here they actualy outshine the on-disc goodies.
'Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis' is a show long overdue, and it is great to have this 'Showcase' selection of highlights hit Blu-ray. The video is mighty fine and the Dolby TrueHD soundtrack even better. Sure, there aren't any extras, but a disc like this is all about the music. So if you're at all a fan of the show, or just want to hear some great jazz, this one is definitely recommended. If only it was longer!