It would be a shame if this exquisite collection got lost in the shuffle due to its carrying a rather generic and somewhat misleading title: Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis. The four DVDs and four CDs within this box set do indeed contain music performed by jazz legends, one of them being, uh-huh, Ramsey Lewis. But Lewis is not the star of the set, per se. He serves primarily as host here, as master of ceremonies for the initial episodes of the PBS series collected within, said to be the first weekly jazz program on American television in some four decades. Each half-hour program features two or three jazz artists of variable renown: some truly legendary (Clark Terry, the late Ray Barretto, to whom it's all dedicated, Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea), some arguably not quite at that status yet, and others admittedly having a long way to go. The format is consistent throughout each of the dozen individual shows: first, Lewis introduces a theme, sometimes grouping like-minded instrumentalists ("The Tenors," "The Golden Horns," "The Piano Masters," "The Altos" "The Killer Bs," the latter being Hammond B-3 organists Joey DeFrancesco and Dr. Lonnie Smith) and other times subgenres ("Brazilian Jazz," "Roots: The Blues," "American Songbook," "The Jazz Singers," "Contemporary Jazz," "Latin Jazz"); while the final program gathers 2006 NEA Jazz Masters honorees Tony Bennett, Barretto and Corea. Next, all-too-brief snippets of related historical footage are shown. Lewis intros his guests, chats with them, they perform separately, and at the end they jam, sometimes with Lewis joining them. On paper that might not look all that riveting -- it's certainly been done before, albeit not via weekly TV -- but the performances are, almost without exception, so outstanding that the repetitive formula doesn't drag the set down, even after several hours of viewing.
From the very first live performance, Terry's still-stupefying "Mumbles," it's clear that quality control was paramount in the choices made here. Brubeck, well into his eighties, proves to be as agile as ever, and matching him up with Billy Taylor, a very different kind of jazz pianist but one whose innovations have been no less significant than Brubeck's, was a savvy move. Likewise, the program devoted to tenor saxists wisely cherry-picks from among generations and styles to juxtapose the veteran Benny Golson with the younger, more pop-oriented Chris Potter and the up-and-comer Marcus Strickland, making for some sharp contrasts but also begging the question of just how loosely the word "legend" is being applied here: certainly, of the three, only Golson comes close to qualifying. It's those juxtapositions that keep things interesting, however. Eddie Palmieri and Dave Valentin would appear to have little in common outside of both falling under the Latin jazz banner, but their segment makes a good case for both approaches. And even on those shows that have, on the surface, a negligible connection to jazz (the blues program features Robert Cray and Keb' Mo', for example, neither one remotely jazzy), Lewis is a skillful and amiable enough conversationalist to draw clear lines. His interviews rarely go very deep -- he only has a few minutes with each artist to work with -- and too often he relies on fallback questions such as who's been influenced by whom, but occasionally he gets a chuckle-worthy anecdote or quote-worthy comment from his guests. As the romantic trumpeter Chris Botti is telling how his record company trusted him to just make the music he wanted to make, ensuring him they would happily promote it, fellow guest Roy Hargrove, the hard bop trumpeter, suddenly gives Botti a skeptical look. "What record company is that?!" Hargrove demands to know, the inference being that today's music industry is so far removed from the concept of encouraging free rein among creative artists that his own experience won't even allow that notion to enter his mind.
Not only is the music extraordinary, for the most part, but the sound and visuals are among the highest quality you're likely to encounter in a music program. Recorded with six HDTV cameras on 24-track digital audio with 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround sound, the set is truly state-of-the-art: sharp, crystal-clear and dynamic, both aurally and visually. In fact, having viewed the 12 half-hour episodes within on DVD before playing the audio companion pieces (the fourth disc is a "Showcase" that collects some of the best performances from the other three), the CDs that comprise the other half of the package ultimately feel somewhat superfluous. Granted, they sound superb and make for great listening on their own, but as they present the same material as found on the DVDs, they ultimately seem lacking minus the visuals. In addition to the DVDs and CDs, the set includes a 226-page soft cover book largely filled with glossy color photos from the programs as well as all of the pertinent details and selected quotes from the interviews. Overall it's a stunning collection, albeit one that doesn't so much offer clues as to the next phase of jazz as reiterate once again where it's been. That's not a criticism -- the set is, after all, ostensibly about established legends, not what's to come -- but it does make one wonder whether the parties involved are implying that jazz has seen its best days or whether they believe that there is still innovation in store. The individual discs are also being sold separately, but the box is well worth the investment.