In 1975, jazz impresario Norman Granz released a 4LP boxed set of concert recordings from 1967 and called it “The Greatest Jazz Concert in the World”, a slight exaggeration as the material was taken from a number of live dates. Good though that set is/was, Granz perhaps could and should have used that grandiose title for his release from a couple of years earlier, “Jazz at the Santa Monic Civic ‘72”. That concert, originally in slightly edited form on a 3LP mail-order set and now available unedited on 3CDs, was rather unusual. It was billed as a Count Basie-Ella Fitzgerald concert, but unknown to the audience (and, so it is said, some of the participants) Granz had invited along a few special guests. The audience was therefore treated to a concert that included nearly three hours of music with, alongside the Basie and Fitzgerald sets, featured a full-blown Jazz at the Philharmonic jazz session and a short set from Oscar Peterson. What better way to kick off this blog, therefore, than by discussing what is one of most joy-filled and enjoyable jazz concerts that was ever recorded.
There must have been something in the air that night. With the CD reissue we can finally hear the opening set by Basie in its entirety, and what a set it is. The Basie band is heard at full force here and seems only too eager to let rip after those rather dull mid to late-1960s studio albums where they were reined in due to the two to three minute arrangements of each song. Here, there is plenty of room for solos, but the ensemble playing finds the Basie band still as tight as a drum (so to speak), and a far cry from the slightly ramshackle outfit the Ellington band had become by this time. DVD footage of the Ellington band from the period (great though it still was) finds the various players arriving late on stage, missing cues etc, but the Basie outfit remained a unique tight unit and is aided and abetted by the fine arrangements.
At the end of the Basie set, Granz takes to the stage to announce to a stunned audience the various guests that are about to take to the stage. Oh, to have been in the audience that night. The excitement in the audience as the names are read out is wonderfully captured in this fine recording. And what a list of guests: Ed Thigpen, Roy Eldridge, Stan Getz, Al Grey, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Harry Edison and Ray Brown. The jam session then follows, starting with a 15 minute rendition of In A Mellow Tone. Everyone is in fine form. Often the JATP jams can descend into good-hearted chaos, but not here. The jam builds up wonderfully and the solos are quite brilliant. Loose Walk follows and is (if you’ll excuse the pun) relatively pedestrian in comparison. A beautiful ballad medley follows, with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis stealing the show with his sublime rendition of If I Had You. The first half of the show is then brought to a close by a final raucous jam, 5400 North.
The second half opens with yet another special guest, this time Oscar Peterson, who is joined by Ray Brown for a near-ten minute rendition of You Are My Sunshine. But it is Ella Fitzgerald who really gets the second half into gear. She had performed very little over the previous twelve months due to eye problems, but here she takes to the stage in brilliant voice and backed by the Basie band and her own trio. Ella performs a number of songs not recorded by her elsewhere, starting with the Nat King Cole song L.O.V.E., and then wading into a Marty Paich arrangement of Begin The Beguine as if her life depended on it. Cole Porter’s song had never been heard like this before, as Ella uses it to incorporate special lyrics about the great dance bands of the 1930s. A Nelson Riddle arrangement of the beautiful Indian Summer follows, and then an epic take on You’ve Got A Friend and a rather unlikely cover of What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye!
The Basie band sits out to allow Ella and her trio to take centre stage for a quartet of numbers that includes a beautiful rendition of the rarely heard ballad Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most and the Cole Porter classic Night and Day. But the best is yet to come when the band rejoins Ella and her trio for Shiny Stockings, the theme tune to Sanford & Son, It’s Alright With Me, and a brilliantly realised five minute rendition of I Can’t Stop Loving You.
The evening comes to a close in what can only be described as possibly the most joyous JATP-style jam session of all. For over ten minutes, Ella Fitzgerald trades fours with each of the horn players introduced earlier in the evening. It is a fitting end to a wonderful show that sounds better than ever in its CD reissue, despite being re-mixed and mastered over twenty years ago.
This is wonderful , life-affirming music with all of the participants having a wail of a time on stage (often literally!). Many will cite the Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl concert of 1956 as the best multi-artist jazz concert of all time, but don’t make your mind up until you have heard this relatively little-known 165 minute epic from 1972. This isn’t just jazz for jazz lovers, it’s jazz for music-lovers in general and anyone who wants to sit down in front of the hi-fi for three hours with a huge smile on their face.