As legendary as Eric Clapton may be, there was a time in his career when he took a break from music, unsure that his guitar was really going to be his lifelong partner. In 1997, Clapton was invited by bassist Marcus Miller to participate in a jam session of sorts with three other musicians: saxophonist David Sanborn, drummer Steve Gad and pianist Joe Sample. Together, the five embarked on an 11-city tour that included debuted in 1997 at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. That debut appearance is now available “officially” to home audiences for the first time, courtesy of a Blu-ray Disc from Eagle Rock Entertainment called Legends: Live at Montreux 1997.
The performance is really best described as a “jam session,” because the disc opens not with a pretentious intro or opening act, but immediately with the five all-stars getting down to the business of doing what they do best. All told, the disc includes 13 songs, accounting for just over an hour and 46 minutes of music. This was the opening performance of the 1997 Montreux Jazz Festival, and it was one of only 11 performances that this group would play together. Amazingly, it was also the sole reason Clapton regained an interest in music after taking most of 1997 off.
With any concert, it’s imperative that the audio hold up, and although it was recorded in 1997 without ever thinking of Blu-ray or DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio, the track is impeccable. Each instrument was separately rigged with a microphone, but the DTS-HD means you never miss a single nuance of any instrument. If I had to give one musician the nod for having the best audio quality, it would be David Sanborn on the saxophone, followed closely by Joe Sample on piano. Rather than a difference in microphone, though, it seems like audio differences between the musicians is simply the nature of the instruments. A saxophone has a bit more clarity with each note than, say, a bass guitar, while the piano’s notes are simply “designed” to sound more distinct than those on Clapton’s guitar. The end result is a Blu-ray Disc that immerses viewers in such high-fidelity music that, unless you just have a penchant for blowing mad stacks of cash, you can experience the rich sound of a legendary concert without ever leaving your sofa.
Sanborn and his alto saxophone arguably dominate the audio in almost every song in which he plays, but this is presumably due to the songs in their set, which often call for heavy saxophone. It would’ve been nice to hear more Clapton and Joe Sample, especially because all five men are well known. This isn’t Hootie or Dave Matthews; we want to hear more from the rest of band, too. To be fair, some of the artists contribute to this problem on their own, particularly Eric Clapton, who starts to wander away from the mic and just “rock out” toward the end of the set. This wouldn’t be quite as bad or noticeable if he weren’t the only vocalist, but he is. As a result, you lose about one-sixth of the lyrics in the last two songs he performs, including the classic “Layla.” Such is the risk you run with a live concert, though, especially one that really does feel like a jam session.
Sanborn heaviness aside, the set shows the range of these musicians. “Full House” is a nice upbeat song, while “Ruthie” shows how each man can tone it down and work together not just on fast-paced tracks, but on more-sedate tunes as well. The first four songs are all instrumentals, but with the fifth track, “Going Down Slow,” Clapton steps up to the mic. Track seven, “In Case You Hadn’t Noticed,” is a great showcase piece for piano and bass, partially because the song’s designed for them, but also because it’s a slower song, giving the men a chance to come into their own. Clapton and his acoustic guitar really step out on this track, as he really seems to bust out. “Third Degree,” the next track, is also a good piano piece, and it gives Clapton his first chance in the set to stretch his blues legs, both on guitar and on vocals. But by far, my favorite track of the entire performance is “Shreveport Stomp” (track 11), which is ragtime piano at its best, an absolutely incredible, impeccable and phenomenal performance. Joe Sample simply knocks it dead in this fast-paced solo number.
It’s too bad watching all these performances literally looks disappointing, with the AVC-encoded video only presented in 1080i. Ironically, it’s not the definition that drops off, but the vibrancy of the colors, which all seem faded. The black levels are pretty poor, too, as the darkest color seems more like a dark gray. In addition, the stage is a bit smoky for about the first half of the performance, which softens the video and reduces the contrast a bit. Fortunately, the fog effect tapers off as the concert progresses, so some of the “fuzz” and softness leaves the video completely, indicating that it wasn’t a bad transfer.
The editing leaves a bit to be desired, though, as the camera jumps from musician to musician pretty frequently in some songs, not to mention from musician’s face to instrument. In some songs you find yourself begging for a longer period of time on one musician, and/or more macro shots due to an occasional instrument zoom being out of focus. In an odd editing move, the shots cut instantly from one to the next in the first few songs, but about one-third of the way through the Blu-ray Disc, they start fading from one shot to the next rather than via hard cut. On the whole, the editing decisions seem to correlate to fast songs getting hard cuts and slower songs getting fades, which is deliberate and stylistic but not a decision I particularly agree with. The editors also could have benefited from using the swinging boom camera more, which ends up being used more as a novelty than a tool to provide functional context or insight into group dynamics.
Still, when you’re presented with a concert featuring these five musical legends, you’re not really focused on the video. It’s the audio that matters, and in that case, Legends: Live at Montreux 1997 delivers. Although Sanborn dominates many of the tracks, it’s not an audio decision that led to this, but a track-list one. Considering the audio is this good from an 11-year-old recording, I can’t imagine how good a recording of these five would be with HD-native tools. What do you say, guys? Reunion time?
Buy Legends: Live at Montreux 1997 on Blu-ray from Amazon.com
- Score: 8
- The audio track shines when it needs to, but the video on this first-time-released concert recording leaves a bit to be desired.
— Jonas Allen