Jazz (Ken Burns) (2000)

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Released 4-Feb-2002

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Main Menu Introduction
Main Menu Audio
Rating Rated E
Year Of Production 2000
Running Time 731:50 (Case: 747)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL
Multi Disc Set (4)
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Ken Burns
Studio
Distributor
Florentine Films
Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring Keith David
Case Slip Case
RPI $109.95 Music Various


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 3.0 L-C-R (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    I came to jazz quite late in my musical voyage - well after my interest moved from rock and roll to classical - more than likely due to the fact that the only jazz I was aware of as a kid in the 1960s were the perversions known as free jazz and then avant-garde. When I first heard that twaddle, I was well and truly lost to jazz for decades. I mean, it wasn't even music! But then in the late 1980s I had the great fortune to discover a recording by the great Duke Ellington called Black, Brown and Beige that opened my eyes to the fact that jazz was not just that free jazz and avant-garde trash that I had rejected in the 1960s. I had discovered swing and I was hooked on jazz - and no correspondence entered into over the inclusion of swing as a form of jazz. As I have wandered my ways through most of the history of jazz on CD, ranging from recordings of Jelly Roll Morton from the mid-1920s to those of Bill Evans from the mid-1960s, I can only regret all those years that I missed out on this single great contribution of the United States to popular culture. My voyage has brought me on intimate terms with the music of men simply known as the King (Louis Armstrong), the Duke (Duke Ellington obviously) and the Count (Count Basie equally obviously) and reduced me to tears at the vocal delights of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald (you have not experienced music until you have heard these two great singers). To say that jazz and I are now on very good listening terms is an understatement - as evidenced by the fact that of the last sixty CDs I have purchased, fifty one are jazz CDs.

    So you can pretty much guess that when this collection came onto the review allocation lists, I was pretty determined to get the review. Of course, the reason for wanting the review was not solely due to it being about jazz (although that is a pretty good reason alone), but also because it was produced by arguably the best television documentary maker in the United States - Ken Burns. Whilst he has made a few TV series, to my mind the best he has done so far are The Civil War (about the American Civil War and coming soon to Region 4 DVD - yeah!), Baseball (his masterpiece that will probably never get released in Region 4) and Jazz. This twelve part series was recently seen on Australian television and its appearance so quickly after the transmission is obviously designed to cash in on the immediacy of people having seen it recently. Do I care if they employ such obvious marketing techniques? Not in the slightest when you are talking about quality programming such as this.

    Obviously it is an extremely demanding task to condense the history of an entire genre of music, even one so young, into a series of just over twelve hours in length. Whilst jazz fanatics will probably quibble over the lack of serious attention given to certain performers, on the whole Ken Burns has done an excellent job of tracing the birth and development of jazz during the twentieth century: born in New Orleans, raised in Chicago and New York, exported to the world (and especially Paris, even if far too little attention is given to the European influence), died pretty well everywhere in the mid-1960s and resurrected in the early-1980s and slowly regaining some stature in the overall music field. The series shows the turbulent nature of that history, and the inexorable links between the music and American society of the past century. As a purely American art form, and one that sprang to life as a fusion of sorts of ragtime and the blues in the African-American community in New Orleans, the links between the situation of African-Americans in their own country and the music they play simply cannot be ignored. It would be fair to say that had it not been for the discriminatory nature of the treatment of African-Americans in the United States, jazz would perhaps have not developed as it did. I guess that at least one positive came out of what was a blight on American history.

    The story of jazz is told through the medium of still photographs, film, television and recent interviews with some of the people who have contributed to the music. Foremost amongst those is Wynton Marsalis, the technical advisor for the series and a brilliant musician in his own right. But there are plenty more including his brother Branford Marsalis, Dave Brubeck, Joya Sherrill, Lester Bowie, Artie Shaw, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Milt Hinton and Cassandra Wilson - all seriously good musicians in their own rights. Add into the mix some archival interview footage with the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, that add a high degree of immediacy to what could otherwise have been a slightly sterile story. Telling contributions too come from critics like Gary Giddins and writers like Albert Murray and Gerald Early, amongst others, that really aid the understanding of the evolution of jazz. Truly, the whole series from start to finish is a terrific mix of photograph, film, commentary and music. It is doubtful that we will ever see another series of this magnitude devoted to the subject, which is all the more reason for such a great job being done here. Surprisingly - or is it because Ken Burns too cannot stand free jazz and avant garde - the last forty years of jazz have been condensed into just a single episode. I might not like the stuff, but surely basically forty years of music deserves slightly more than one episode?

    Whether you are a huge jazz fanatic or just interested in learning more about jazz, you are bound to find plenty of interest in the series. The only downer may well be that the taste you get from some of the archival concert footage may just leave you yearning just a little too much to see the whole concert. Certainly I found myself on occasions wishing that we could have seen a lot more of the concerts than we were given. I had to console myself with digging out some of those CDs and playing the pieces that way. How will you console yourself?

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Since we are talking source material that dates back to the start of the last century, you can bet that the quality is all over the place, ranging from very ropey to quite excellent. You certainly would not be buying this set if you were looking for pristine transfers. To be fair though, most of the problems with the transfers are source related, rather than mastering related. The material is all presented in a Full Frame format that is not 16x9 enhanced.

    Mind you, tolerance was not easy to come by as episode one starts. Indeed, so poor is this episode that I was almost fearful that we were going to be enduring an over compressed nightmare along the lines that we see from BBC DVDs. Once you get past episode one though, things really do improve significantly. Still, there is always a distinct difference between the excellent, recent interview material and the at times rather poor quality archival material. The main problem is that some of that material is incredibly grainy, so much so that at times during episode one the picture seems to exhibit pixelization or what seems to be low level noise. It is difficult to watch. Overall, the detail is quite good though, and whilst clarity is obviously not the best, I am not going to complain too much about what we have here. It should be pointed out that the longer first DVD is by far the worst of the four DVDs in the set.

    With a mix of aged black and white, very nice black and white and colour material, there is no easy way to describe what the colours look like. We see murky greys, we see solid black and white and we see excellent, vibrant colour, and everything in between. All I can say for sure is that there is no issue with oversaturation or colour bleed.

    Apart from what looks like pixelization during episode one, there were no apparent MPEG artefacts in the transfer. There is, however, plenty of evidence of film-to-video artefacts in the transfer, thankfully of the generally minor variety: aliasing is the main problem that crops up in virtually every episode, and there were some instances of moiré artefacting at times (at 37:07 in episode two being an example). Like the quality of the source material, the more recent stuff seems to be less afflicted with the issues (although I will admit to stopping my note taking during episode 7 as to continue was pointless - I just would have ended up with a mass of notes saying exactly the same thing). The source material exhibits some of the best (or is that worst) examples of film artefacts you will see. Nothing much can be done about that, but thankfully the new stuff did not seem to want to join in the film artefact games.

    Each of the four DVDs in the box are RSDL formatted. The layer changes are located at 101:41, 93:10, 90:14 and 91:23 overall on the four DVDs respectively. These equate to episode timings of 17:01, 34:03, 32:02 and 32:29 in episodes two, five, seven and eleven respectively. On the first and second DVDs, these points occur during chapter title boards and are basically not noticeable. On the third DVD the change occurs mid-scene and is quite obvious as there is a slight pause in the audio stream at that point. The fourth DVD has the change hidden in a fade to black scene change that is not noticeable.

    There is unfortunately no subtitle option on the DVD, so our hearing impaired readers will be in a little difficulty here.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There is just the one soundtrack on the DVD, being an English Dolby Digital 3.0 soundtrack. This has a notional configuration of L-C-R according to Michael D, but it certainly sounds much different to that on my system. Disc three in particular has copious use of the rear surround channels, so I am guessing that this is either a surround encoded 3.0 soundtrack, or else there is some significant variation in the mastering of the individual episodes. At times I could almost swear I was listening to a Dolby Digital 5.0 soundtrack (my amp certainly does not indicate this is the case though). Whatever the format, it is not without its problems.

    The music, vocals and dialogue comes up well in the transfer, much more so than I was expecting as far as the music goes, and everything is very easy to understand. There appeared to be no audio sync problems in the transfer.

    Given that the source material ranges in vintage from the early 1900s to the 1990s, there is obviously huge variance in the quality throughout. The older stuff is generally quite poorly defined and even through to the 1950s stuff there is plenty in the way of hiss in the sound. Not that this was entirely unexpected mind you, but it certainly contrasts poorly with some of the CD recordings of jazz I have from the same eras. Still, rather hissy than not at all. The format of the sound is quite perplexing at times and I was initially very surprised by the extent of the sound emanating from the rear speakers. Often it is nothing more than mild but noticeable support of the front surrounds, and a consistently rather dominant centre channel, but on disc three it gets really heavy in the rears with noticeable rearward balance of the overall sound. This is especially noticeable during episode 7. The sound also becomes quite echoy in the interview segments in that episode, which suggests that there is something well and truly awry somewhere in the mastering process.

    You can forget the subwoofer contributing anything to proceedings other than as a useful place to put your drinks and dips on.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    Now, unless you really consider main menu introductions and main menu audio extras worthy enough to influence your purchasing decisions.

Menu

    A minor introduction followed by some minor audio enhancement.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    Obviously, since it was made for US television, there is a Region 1 DVD available. Regrettably, it is a better proposition than the Region 4 release, although it does come in a 10 DVD box set that is waaayyyyyy more expensive. The Region 4 release misses out on:

    There must be other differences too, as the Region 1 release has a length of 10 feature length episodes running over 19 hours of material according to DVD File (or just under 19 hours according to DVD Angle), which is significantly more than the Region 4 release at 732 minutes. If we are to take the Region 1 reviews at face value, and there is certainly no reason to doubt the three reviews I checked out given the consistency of running time figures in excess of 1,100 minutes, there is obviously a chunk of material missing from the Region 4 release. Reading those reviews certainly indicates how much better the Region 1 release is - that playlist information is actually a feature where each song has an information card telling you all sorts of stuff about the song being played.

    For completeness sake, I will mention that the Region 1 release does miss out on the Dolby Digital 3.0 soundtrack. Hardly the sort of thing to dissuade me to indulge the by all accounts vastly superior Region 1 release.

Summary

    The man is a maestro as far as documentaries is concerned and therefore it is hardly surprising that the expectations and anticipation with respect of Jazz: A Film By Ken Burns were met completely. Given the age of some - indeed much - of the archival material, allowance is readily given as regards the source material problems. The video transfer really is a good effort and is matched by an audio transfer that is surprisingly good. The lack of extras is a bummer, but then again you cannot always have everything and the series pretty well fills the 4 DVDs making up the set. This is recommended viewing of the highest order and would certainly be worthy of inclusion in the Top 10 documentaries available on DVD at this time, despite the flaws.

    Nonetheless, the set does have two extremely annoying mastering issues. Firstly, we have to endure the ABC DVD Video logo thingy after every episode, as well as at the start of each DVD. Would you like to guess what I would like to do with the DVD after enduring this thingy sixteen times in the one set? Secondly, the menu audio is at a vastly higher decibel level than the main programme. After having got your audio level right during the programming on the first DVD, when you insert the second DVD into your player, you get blasted out of your viewing room. I am not talking a minor difference, but a substantial difference that really is completely unacceptable.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Ian Morris (Biological imperfection run amok)
Friday, February 08, 2002
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-515, using S-Video output
DisplaySony Trinitron Wega (80cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationYamaha RXV-795
SpeakersEnergy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL

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