Essays In A Mellow Mood
– a personal exploration of my top ten jazz recordings –
“Jes Grew has no end and no beginning. It even precedes that little ball that exploded 1000000000s ago and led to what we are now. Jes Grew may even have caused the ball to explode. We will miss it for awhile but it will come back, and when it returns we will see that it never left. You see, life will never end; there is really no end to life, if anything goes it will be death. Jes Grew is life. They comfortably share a single horse like 2 knights. They will try to depress Jes Grew but it will only spring back and prosper. We will make our own future Text. A future generation of young artists will accomplish this. If the Daughters of the Eastern Star can do it, so can they.”
— Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo
Whether projected from a literary, musical, cinematic, or “artistic” perspective, jazz is the lifeblood of every contemporary creative endeavor. This is a fundamental law I have come to accept over the course of my creative career. The influence of jazz is most definitely present in the output of countless creative sorts, whether they themselves are aware of the fact. There is something humble about the presentation. The wailing brass and dashing percussion, cackling ivories, black keys and throaty bass – bombastic as they are – remain just as content travelling “below street level,” offering subtle influence on even the most casual of spectators. My explanation for such a statement is simply that jazz has always been the great modern resistance to the militant orthodoxy often present within established corners of the creative community. In its prime, jazz was the ultimate expression of rebellion. The genre is brazenly universal, which is what makes its resulting subtleties so commendable.
Last summer, in an attempt to keep myself busy between projects and publications, I took to compiling “favorite album” lists. I was inspired to do so after visiting a record store in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis, and coming across an abundance of terrific deals in their “used” section. I walked out with a bundle, including a couple of Jimmy Buffett LPs, Mother’s Finest’s Another Mother Further, and Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand!
While listening to them back at home, I realized how badly I wanted to talk about them and decided to compile a list of my top hundred favorite albums. The project had been planned as a large piece consisting of one hundred essays covering each album in sequential order of my ranking.
Eventually, the list splintered into various “top ten’s” – top ten country & western albums, top ten pop records, top ten soul masterpieces, top ten psychedelic efforts, and so forth – but I had always intended to cover my top ten jazz records. I was sitting around listening to Thelonious Alone in San Francisco sometime toward the end of Marchwhen I finally decided to pull the list out. Later that day, I happened to discover that April is Jazz Appreciation Month and immediately contacted bill berry, jr. about making this jazz top ten a possible commemorative project. For as long as I’ve known bill, he has consistently remained one of my few musical soulmates, in that we so often happen to be on the same page regarding many of the classics and the Greats who created them – he was the first person I went to regarding the idea.
The list you will be reading has been whittled down from a list of one hundred. Choosing a mere ten from one hundred phenomenal releases was no easy undertaking and by the time I managed to do so, I felt a tinge of guilt over the omission of certain expected “classics” from my final ranking. The reader will need to bear in mind that my lists are less about the albums’ “significance” culturally or historically than they are about the intimate histories I share with them on a personal level.
I take the Music seriously, perhaps far more than I need to. Certainly, there have been disagreements with fellow listeners, which have escalated into arguments. There have been opinions so critical of certain “natural laws” in the history of pop music that I have generally avoided sharing in an attempt to avoid controversy at the hands of enthusiasts I otherwise like. Even now, as ironically as it may appear, I am able to recognize the risk I run of catapulting myself into the leagues of crotchety fundamentalists who spend much more time griping about how the Music “ought to sound” and the way art “ought to be” than they do stopping to smell the roses. But it is not necessarily a disposition I feel inclined to apologize or offer excuses for, as it does not curb my desire to promote such efforts in creativity. So, keeping with the spirit of promoting such efforts in creativity, as well as commemorating Jazz Appreciation Month, I offer up my ten favorite jazz albums of all time.
I feel inclined to remain here in voice and elaborate in greater detail my affection for the genre. However, I will refrain from doing so, and instead, recommend the works of far greater minds than my own. Those musical geniuses who were present for the golden era or are qualified to lead such a weighty and vast conversation – to quote the great Thomas Pynchon, who made the suggestion concerning the knowledge of a topic other than the Music, his suggestion stands as wise in this case, “Check out Ishmael Reed. He knows more about it than you’ll ever find here.”
*This list is dedicated to the memory of the great “hillbilly Dylan” and my fellow Midwesterner, influential songwriter, John Prine, who recently passed at age seventy-three from complications brought on by COVID-19.
April 8th, 2020
Mingus Ah Um – Charles Mingus (Columbia, 1959)
“In other words, I am there. One man stands forever in the middle, unconcerned, unmoved, watching, waiting to be allowed to express what he sees to the other two. The second man is like a frightened animal that attacks for fear of being attacked. Then there’s an over-loving gentle person who lets people into the uttermost sacred temple of his being and he’ll take insults and be trusting and sign contracts without reading them and get talked down to working cheap or for nothing, and when he realizes what’s been done to him he feels like killing and destroying everything around him including himself for being so stupid. But he can’t – he goes back inside himself.”
— Charles Mingus, Beneath the Underdog (1971)
Arguably the most personally significant record on the list, Mingus Ah Um has come to resemble a sort of “magnum opus” on Mingus’s part. It stands as a Homeric epic spanning the entirety of the nineteen-fifties, that seems to embody every mood, hot and cool, of mid-century America and the assortment shadows cast across its furrowed brow.
Mingus Ah Um is as imperative to jazz as Pet Sounds is to pop – an innovative and unorthodox experiment in sonic bliss…a compact and cohesive cycle of waxing emotion not always fathomable, but intrinsically of value to any listener. A stylish pendulum swaying back and forth between wistful nostalgia, docile and melancholy, to lively reawakening and glory in the eye of a man as conflicted and controversial as he was revered.
The opener, “Better Git it in Your Soul” – or as Spotify has titled it, “Better Get Hit in Your Soul,” youch! – is a superior contribution to the California Sound in jazz. Everything that pianist Dave Brubeck and vibraphonist Cal Tjader were doing during the same decade is rivalled entirely by this track alone. There is a sense of old Los Angeles spirituality heard within these notes, accentuated by the masterful arrangements and tight production protocols. I would go as far as to proclaim this song as one of the key tracks in all of jazz music, as well as one of the most unique compositions offered by any contemporary musician.
In keeping with the record’s Homeric scope, “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” finds Mingus visited by a specter in the night, the spirit of recently deceased saxophonist and unofficial hipster king, Lester “Pres” Young. The melody is low and blown by the sands of dreaming, as though dreams were the only place Mingus would ever again meet Young. The sentimentality casts a peculiar light upon Mingus himself, somber and squinting into the shadows then. It is a moment of sheer vulnerability, one of the album’s most phenomenal cuts.
The infectious rhythm of the multilayered “Boogie Stop Shuffle” forms a lively bridge between “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” and the record’s second major downtempo number, the smoky “Self-Portrait in Three Colours,” an easygoing fantasy rich with mystery and the scent of freshly fallen rain.
Other areas of the album present a much more manic energy. An electrifying pair of tributes to Mingus’s iconic contemporaries, the hopping “Open Letter to Duke” and the jubilating “Bird Calls,” while the more socially geared “Fables of Faubus” displays a scathing critique of the segregationist Arkansas governor in several shades of blue which serve as a brief return to the vaporous mystique of the album’s more mournful tracks.
The elusive “Pussy Cat Dues” gives way to the album’s closing track, the lighthearted romp of “Jellyroll,” a final tribute to one more icon. While not as strong of a closing cut as one might find on Kind of Blue or Time Out, it still succeeds in tying the rest of the record together in one final atmospheric bow-out.
Objectively speaking, Mingus Ah Um served as a necessary redefinition of the genre in Mingus’s corner of the culture, and subjectively speaking, it remains among the most significant and accessible listens offered by a performer of Mingus’s generation.
Certainly, consensus of the contemporary climate will not see Mingus faring so well. Critics, then and contemporary revisionists might be better served to fairly assess his various escapades and notoriously abrasive temperament in measured doses. His behavior should not devalue or ever stand to suggest that his work, specifically the album referenced here, be disregarded or expunged from creative jazz music history. It remains among the most astounding musical recordings one will listen to.
Key tracks: Better Git It in Your Soul, Goodbye Porkpie Hat, Self-Portrait in Three Colours, Open Letter to Duke
California Here I Come – Bill Evans (Verve, 1982)
When imaging the explosive triumphs throughout the golden age of jazz, I’ve occasionally pictured pianist Bill Evans lingering somewhere within the crowd, puffing on the ash-laden cigarette protruding from between his lips, his face illuminated by the crimson glow of the ingenuity cackling before him.
He always seemed to be present.
He was there with Miles Davis, with whom he co-wrote Kind of Blue’s classic cut, “Blue in Green,” as well as its mystifying closer, “Flamenco Sketches.” He was present on Chet Baker’s ensemble effort, Chet, the same year. During his thirty-year career, he played sideman to Mingus, Eddie Costa, George Russell, and other luminaries of the genre, and earned his first Grammy Award in 1963 for his innovative solo recording, Conversations with Myself.
While appreciation for Evans and his playing style seems to expand with each passing decade, I feel inclined to include his posthumously released double LP, California Here I Come, among my all-time favorite jazz recordings not only because it has failed to grow stale after the thirteen years I’ve been listening to it, but also because it was my very first introduction to jazz music.
I was dreaming of some grand California escape (it might’ve been the Beach Boys records I’d loved so much, or perhaps it was that lovely Bay Area dawn depicted at the end of American Graffiti) when I came across the record’s title. It was May, one day after my thirteenth birthday. That day, I discovered the Evans album online while sitting at the old home computer and the title appealed to me. The album’s cover also leapt out at me, with its oily electricity and pale bespectacled ghost which, unbeknownst to me at the time, I would come to resemble upon reaching my twenties. It was a very telling moment, and the music washed over me like a warm ray of summer light.
Now, mind you, California Here I Come is not a “California” record. It was recorded live at New York City’s historic Village Vanguard jazz club in late summer of 1967 – a somewhat “raw” release since the muted murmurs and sudden shuffling of audience members chairs add to the edgy nuance. Of course, I had not been aware of it at the time, but most certainly associated his sound with such warm California summer nights. I was taken aback by the atmospheric complexity of Evans’s jangly melodies. As I compared it to much of the classic rock and pop music I grew on, I felt as though I had been peering into another world.
Of the album’s fifteen cuts, only three of them are Evans originals, although he manages to mold each standard into his own signature musical vision. I have always been particularly fond of his tumbling rendition of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” as well as his wistful interpretation of “If You Could See Me Now,” while the album’s version of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” stands as my favorite reimagining of that classic. “Philly Joe” Jones’s rollicking percussion (showcased in perfection on “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”) and Eddie Gomez’s steady plucking on bass accentuate the smooth beauty of Evans’s playing, adding an air of comradery to the otherwise solitary sound. It is a lovely recording, alternating between lively jingles and dreamlike balladry, with the rainy melancholia of “Emily” standing as one of the album’s highest points.
Not released until 1982, two years after Evans’s untimely demise, when years of addiction and hard living had finally caught up with him in the combined form of cirrhosis, bronchial pneumonia, hepatitis, and a peptic ulcer. California Here I Come peaked at number 12 on the Billboard Jazz Album charts, although it failed to be among the “classics” of its era. It is, however, a classic in my opinion. I could just as easily included more established Evans masterpieces, such as 1960’s Portrait in Jazz or the aforementioned Conversations with Myself.I selected this particular recording since it single handedly taught me to love jazz – an adoration which would continue to grow before blossoming into sheer creative inspirations years later.
I consider California Here I Come among the best, though my own personal sentimentality toward those rosy memories attached to the record may cloud my shameless and unapologetic judgement.
Key tracks: California Here I Come, Polka Dots and Moonbeams, In a Sentimental Mood, G Waltz, On Green Dolphin Street, If You Could See Me Now, Emily.
Ellington at Newport – Duke Ellington (Columbia, 1956)
Not only one of the finest live jazz albums, but one of the finest live albums in general, Ellington at Newport embodies everything bold and beautiful about jazz’s spirit in the Fifties.
Ellington at Newport isa worthwhile listen as a jazz album, but it is also serves as an intriguing time capsule, an intimate glimpse straight back to July 1956 when the country was hot, and the spirit and experience of jazz, in both its triumph and tragedy, had since worked its way into the center of the American consciousness, affecting many. Nat Shapiro’s Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya had rung in the new decade. Allen Ginsberg had debuted his monumental epic, “Howl,” at San Francisco’s Six Gallery less than a year prior (the work would be collected into a chapbook and published several months subsequent to Ellington’s performance at the Newport Jazz Festival). Novelist Norman Mailer played a major part in helping to popularize the term “hipster” one year later and beginning in 1959, the Grammy Awards would begin to include a Best Jazz Instrumental Album category, which Count Basie would be the first to win.
The hearty introductions, the masterful improvisation, and the feeling that something was happening long before it was fashionable to think so permeate the record like old friends smoking at the back of a lonesome club as Ellington slips into “Festival Junction” before tearing a hole through the entire scene and launching a full-on assault, complete with blaring brass and scuttling percussion, before cooling down for the coy sway of “Blues to be There.”
“Jeep’s Blues,” a personal favorite, stands as one of Ellington’s finest moments on the record, while the presentation of “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue” [my top selection from the album] catapults the genre’s bar even higher. Astounding and alive with color and sound, this closing track remains one of my all-time favorite jazz performances and is an exhilarating listen every time.
While it is worth noting that not all the album was recorded live, the atmosphere surrounding even the solitary performances remains in step with the magic of the Festival.
Years ago, while living in Minnesota with my stepfather, my mother had come across an early pressing of Ellington at Newport in a Minneapolis antique shop and sent it down to me in Indiana. It quickly became a rainy afternoon favorite and settled itself onto my list of top album selections. It is a bombastically visceral experience, especially when considering its context throughout history.
The Newport Jazz Festival was an electric place to be during such an era, and Ellington provided a soundtrack both to the event, as well as an evolving America.
Key tracks: Festival Junction, Jeep’s Blues, Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue
Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres – Matana Roberts (Constellation, 2011)
Arguably the most significant and necessary musical endeavor of the decade, Matana Roberts’s Coin Coin series (consisting of four sprawling chapters as of 2019) stands as the most innovative and unique series of recordings thus released by any member of her generation, as well as my own.
The Chicago-born saxophonist/clarinetist and visual artist released her first entry in the series back in spring of 2011 to largely positive reviews. Continuing that steady momentum, she released subsequent chapters over the following decade, weaving together an epic fable of cultural terror and triumph in America.
Each installment of the Coin Coin saga embodies the sound and vernacular of a different era in American history. Chapter One draws largely from the culture surrounding the slave trade, as stirringly evidenced by the album’s stirring second track, “Pov Piti,” in which a frantic stream-of-consciousness narrative is spun across the wailing instrumentation, the ghostly voice of the “child of the moon” and “second daughter” proclaims “there will never be pictures of me.”
While Roberts’s biting commentary and seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of history will affect the comfortable consciences of any listener, the brilliance of her approach exists through her ability to depict her commentary not through overtly academic or sentimental rhetoric, but through the very texture of the history itself. One can feel the humidity of the scene, smell the rust and blood, feel the warm sting of tears down dirt-streaked cheeks. Due to Roberts’s penchant for spoken word narration and often experimental “kitchen sink” approach to production, the record is almost a sort of séance, with the voices of the living and the dead cycling throughout, sometimes indiscernible from one another. The effect is both frightening, as well as entirely empathetic.
As Roberts wails, croaks, and croons her way through the eight tracks, we are treated to a vast sonic landscape of ever-shifting genres, from freeform jazz to gospel to chants, blues, and even cryptic boogie woogie and jagged vocal numbers. Coin Coin Chapter One was doing things most popular artists in America could no longer fathom – the bold spirit of improvisation and inspiration is alive and well here.
Most importantly, Roberts offers variety. While waves of bombastic abrasiveness and a film of grit paints much of the album, there are also a number of reprieves, such as the mournful “Lulla/Bye” and the album’s mesmerizing closer, “How Much Would You Cost?” But for Roberts, the heaviness is meritorious, as it helps to emphasize the atmosphere of strife depicted within the lyrics. Roberts’s fiercely roaring saxophone completes the racing hearts of “Rise” and “I Am,” while her anguished vocals lend voices to the women she depicts. It is all very affecting and entirely relevant, making for an original and compelling listening experience with an eloquently educated undertone.
Key tracks: Pov Piti, Kersaia, Libation for Mr. Brown, How Much Would You Cost
Time Out – The Dave Brubeck Quartet (Columbia, 1959)
An exquisite entry in the jazz catalogue, The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s seminal 1959 release served not only as the final chapter in a series of iconic releases over the course of that stellar year for the genre, but also as a major trendsetter and reference point for jazz compositions to come.
Like Bill Evans, Brubeck’s east coast contemporary, the echoes of Brubeck’s home region haunt the innards of his piano. One can feel the morning winds of San Joaquin County, can hear the crashing surf far into the distance of one’s own imagination. On Time Out, it never drops below fifty degrees except for in the night and the sunset over the glimmering rooftops is saturated in amiable pinks and powder blues. The music is just as necessary around midnight as it is at lunchtime.
The beauty of an effective musical album is its ability to embody the essence of its homeland even while having been recorded and celebrated nearly three thousand miles away, as is the case with Time Out, which was recorded at the CBS 30th Street Studio in New York City. Despite physical location, however, much of Brubeck’s oeuvre retains some uniquely “west coast” affectation, and Time Out is no exception.
Another note of interest is the cultural inspiration behind the innovative sounds of this distinctively American effort. With time signatures modelled off those heard by Brubeck in various Eurasian folk songs over the course of his 1958 world tour, during which Brubeck and his band visited such fourteen countries, including Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, among others — regions he had explored intimately on 1958’s Jazz Impressions of Eurasia.
Time Out offers a structure often peculiar in comparison to those being used by many of his fellow Columbia labelmates, such as Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, who had also dropped monumental recordings of their own that year. Displayed prominently on the album’s hue-ridden opener, “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” the overall sound translates very well into the fashion of Brubeck’s native West, helping to define a crucial period in creative evolution of American culture.
As with other recordings on this list, Time Out offers a set of tracks which each stand as their own individual masterpieces. This recording is an album incredibly difficult to cherry pick from.
In my opinion, “Strange Meadow Lark” is one of Brubeck’s finest compositions. It is an utterly exquisite piece of music, headily romantic in its dusky scope; piano notes rolling over the listener’s conscience like the waves off the coast of Pacific, with long-time collaborator Paul Desmond’s pouring alto sax inviting the spectators out to sea upon a shimmering wave. The album’s production is sleek as chrome and the composition is tight as well as consistent, making the track one of the record’s most accessible.
The Desmond-penned and fan favorite “Take Five,” an immortal contribution to the jazz canon, offers a barrage of percussion and a smooth alto over Brubeck’s bouncing keys, while the whimsical “Three to Get Ready” offers a lighter touch to the soundscape, and the casually playful “Kathy’s Waltz” succeeds in recreating the vibrating walls of some San Francisco afternoon café, packed to the brim with cigarette smoke and imaginative conversations.
I laud Brubeck and many of his contemporaries for their ability to select such worthwhile closers, tracks which successfully sum up the album’s intent, as well as the players’ abilities. “Pick Up Sticks” is most definitely such a track. It embodies the very best of the Quartet and always sends the listener off desiring more.
Time Out is an undeniable classic and a necessary addition to any current jazz aficionado’s collection.
Key tracks: Strange Meadow Lark, Take Five, Pick Up Sticks
The Wes Montgomery Trio –Wes Montgomery (Riverside, 1959)
The bedroom window of my apartment overlooks Indiana Avenue nestled in the city of Indianapolis, Indiana.
In the late night, rain upon the street shimmers before the Sam H. Jones Center, flickers down the sidewalk where (if not for an extending apartment beside my own) one could see the Avenue’s final remaining relic, the Madame CJ Walker Theater, rising proudly into the night, but with all the history whispering down these sidewalks, one might not think to consider it, as most of what once stood is now gone. One will not find the building that once housed the notorious Sunset Terrace (where it was reported that Duke Ellington once had liquor thrown onto his suit during a performance, and swore he would never return), although historic Ransom Place still remains nearby, albeit heavily remodeled.
Luckily for the inquisitive resident, Indianapolis Public Library boasts numerous sections devoted to what was once created on my street and the evidence is eternally present on the magnificent recordings left behind.
My personal favorite musical figure from the Avenue has always been Indianapolis’s own John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery, jazz guitarist extraordinaire whose innovative influence traveled well beyond the borders of the Hoosier State.
While Montgomery was featured on over thirty albums during his twenty-year career, I have always been partial to his 1959 masterpiece, The Wes Montgomery Trio.
Recorded at Reeves Sound Studio in New York City, Montgomery successfully carried with him in his suitcase the essence of Indianapolis, as it certainly appears in full on the record.
Alongside fellow Hoosier Melvin Rhyne and percussionist Paul Parker, Montgomery displays his distinctive thumb-picking technique against a pleasant backdrop of heady organ and steady beats, of which Montgomery makes the best use of during his top-notch rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight.” Montgomery freely weaves in and out of the octaves while Parker brushes and taps out a wall of rhythm behind and Rhyne’s organ lulls beneath offering a sense of warm inebriation to oscillating melody.
Peppier numbers such as “The End of a Love Affair” and “Ecaroh” showcase Montgomery’s acrobatic picking while Rhyne and Parker take the backseat, only providing general emphasis where needed.
“Whisper Not” and “Satin Doll (Take 7)” conjure lost imagery of the Avenue during its golden era, both maintaining lush romance and cool grooves as one imagines the headlights and patrons pouring in and out of the clubs and bars some bygone summer night.
The sleepy “Too Late Now” and “Jingles,” the record’s livewire closer, round out a solid album, though the centerpiece, for me, has always been “Missile Blues (Take 6).”
Drawing its name from the Avenue’s Missile Room, an after-hours club where Montgomery was initially discovered, “Missile Blues (Take 6)” is entirely representative of the trio’s enchanting cohesion. Montgomery plays in time to Parker’s gentle percussion while Rhyne’s organ permeates all the collective notes like a swirling layer of citrine fog. If asked about Montgomery’s repertoire , “Missile Blues” is the one I will quickly recommend.
While the following year’s The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery is likely the obvious selection, I hold a peculiar fondness for The Wes Montgomery Trio which I cannot seem to shake. To me, it represents a high point in the history of a city not always renowned for its creative influence on the genre. A city I have come to know rather well.
Key tracks: ‘Round Midnight, The End of a Love Affair, Satin Doll (Take 7), Missile Blues (Take 6), Too Late Now
Kind of Blue – Miles Davis (Columbia, 1959)
Around the age of sixteen, I acquired my father’s copy of Seven Steps to Heaven and was especially taken with Miles’s rendition of “Basin Street Blues.” Eventually, I would find that I heard the “cool” everywhere I went. Down the silver sidewalks of rainy evening streets, through midnight windowsills and tobacco mist, on rooftops, in verse, dressed in coats and ties, I wanted to see it in fleeting voices of distant romances and occasionally did. Mainly, I saw it in myself and lamented how soothing it would have been to have known that sound as a much younger boy. Jazz is genuinely the contemporary’s Hypericon, a healing formula for all sorts of melancholy ailments. By the time I acquired Kind of Blue, the definition and ambiance of cool was lodged like cement in my very conscience.
I remain intrigued that people who do not enjoy jazz music tend to own this record. Every mainstream rock and pop publication will toss it in between Beatles entries on “all-time greats” lists. “Blue” as a musical adventure is not as intimidating as Bitches Brew or as radical as On the Corner. It isn’t so anemic in tone as to resemble In a Silent Way, so over the course of its sixty-year existence, Kind of Blue has found its way into the cryptocurrency of trendy music critics to trade back and forth like pressed vinyl baseball cards and yet, it all makes sense. For better or worse, Kind of Blue is arguably the perfect jazz recording. It has the mythological appeal of a rock record. It maintains its own towering complexity, and yet it remains entirely accessible to the masses. On the flipside, it has also introduced many unassuming listeners to the genre, people who otherwise would have never taken an interest in jazz music. As a genuine cultural phenomenon, it transcends the boundaries and expectations of the jazz community and has made its way to influence performers and composers of nearly every genre, performers as diverse as the pioneers of the British Invasion to the early California Sound, from the later likes of protopunks such as Elvis Costello to the revolutionaries and architects of funk and hip-hop. Kind of Blue possesses what George Clinton once referred to as the “desired effect.”
One of the most impressive aspects of Kind of Blue is the sidemen it boasts.
On this disc, there is Bill Evans and John Coltrane in top form. One must stop to imagine the bright presence of this collective of musical compatriots or rather musical geniuses in one room. It must have been blinding.
The presence of these musicians, who were leaders in their own right on tracks like the stunning “Blue in Green,” one of the most gorgeous pieces of American music ever put to tape, and “Flamenco Sketches,” both of which Evans co-wrote with Miles, serves as a charming sense of illumination to the sessions. Coltrane lends some of his finest efforts throughout, forming a masterwork of inspiration between each performer.
Kind of Blue offers one of the finest opening cuts of any record of any decade, “So What.” This tune sets the mood not only for the album, but also for the entire American Fifties as a whole. What is so stunning in this disc is the subtlety. There is nothing grandiose about its structure. It all sounds very casual, as though Miles, Coltrane and Evans are merely sitting in a living room, smoking cigarettes, talking music and possibly riffing through impromptu improvised musical interludes. There is strength in collaboration and the greatest jazzmen were very aware of the fact.
Like the subsequent, “Freddie Freedloader,” “So What” boasts a specific brand of intrinsic beauty, in which, for all its complexity, the comprehension of the track exists largely within the aesthetic capacity of the listener. Herein lies the charm of Kind of Blue. It is not to be strictly internalized and understood by its technical and academic merits, but also on an entirely emotional level. The listener unfamiliar with any musical theory within or beyond the jazz genre can still get the most out of this album, which is a major factor of the recording’s revolutionary nature.
“All Blues” serves as one of the album’s greatest focal points, an eleven-and-a-half minute epic culminating in everything the record is working towards. Simply stated, “all blues.” The essence of Miles’s effort shines brightly here and transports the listener straight into the heart of his inspiration and all compositions are eloquently completed by the sleepy “Flamenco Sketches.” This selection is another example of the jazz composer’s penchant for selecting the ultimate closers.
There you have it. Kind of Blue.
Ground Zero for many young jazz enthusiasts. As a teenager, I can still recall receiving the album for Christmas and in tandem with the luminaries gathered in CBS 30th Street Studio six decades ago, it still shines blindingly bright.
Key tracks: So What, Blue in Green, All Blues
Stan Getz & Cal Tjader – Cal Tjader-Stan Getz Sextet (Fantasy, 1958)
There is just something magnificent about that West Coast vibration.
The warm wash of California jazz first found me in the form of Charles Mingus. There was something so fresh about the West Coast sound. The sound was quirky, yet romantic, and trippy before trippy was even a prominent movement in art. Sextet is such a record and perhaps even more.
Imagine the scene. San Francisco circa 1958. New York saxman and eventual Bossa Nova pioneer Stan Getz, a jazz veteran who spent the decade playing alongside the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, entered the studio with West Coast vibraphonist Cal Tjader to record a jazz album for the local Fantasy label. Tjader, born in St. Louis but raised in San Mateo since the age of two, had formed a jazz trio with fellow San Francisco State classmate Dave Brubeck in the late Forties before beginning his career as a sideman several years later. While Tjader had an inherent tendency to focus on Latin-American music, much of his early output had emerged with the burgeoning Californian sound.
Upon its release, Cal Tjader-Stan Getz Sextet (sometimes listed with the duo’s name vice-versa), was deemed relatively insignificant in comparison to the records of their contemporaries being released around the same time. Indeed the record is a bit of a “mixed-bag” in regards to the consistency and cohesivity of the works. Even in context of the three consecutive Tjader compositions, which make up the center of the album, Sextet is not a suite. Each track is entirely unique unto itself, bearing no overt similarity to any other track. Whereas Kind of Blue or Mingus Ah Um contain an obvious structural conceptualization which carries through each cut with some intrinsic consistency, Sextet operates contrary to this foundation.
At eleven minutes in length, “Ginza Samba,” is the longest and “airiest” cut on the album. It is also the most up-tempo track here, clicking bebop complete with diving sax, sock-hoppity guitar, and modest-but-definitive vibraphone work on part of Tjader. Over the course of the song, the duo plays it honestly, including some stunning pounded bebop piano solos and ribbited basslines worthy of numerous “repeat” listens.
Loewe & Lerner’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” is given a stunning reimagining on track two. A six-minute-short adversary to “Ginza Samba,” in this selection the blues reigns supreme. A wistful number in which Tjader’s throaty vibraphone is brought to the forefront, Getz’s New York sax juxtaposed with a distant Evans-esque piano melody makes for loose and easy listening during the wee small hours in which the spirit of lost love may find you vulnerable and devoid of dreaming.
The 1934 standard “For All We Know” is wealthy with sound. It is a vast cornucopia of crisp melody by which we are treated to the wandering vibration of Tjader’s beat while Getz hangs back a little, allowing for the dining room ivories and bouncing percussion to break through in accompaniment to the echoing vibraphone, which return in the final moment of the song to engulf the melody once more.
“Crow’s Nest,” a Tjader original and one of the record’s stand-out cuts, runs anachronistically in either direction. The tempo is right at home in ’58, Getz’s roaring saxophone is howling a good fifteen/twenty years into the future and the banging on the piano behind it all might have been present in the air at an eastbound Fitzgerald bash circa 1923. The tune makes for an absolutely gorgeous eight minutes which may leave one’s stomach heavy with nostalgia for the past or hopeful for the age to come.
“Liz-Anne,” another stunner, is also a Tjader original. It might also be the most significant track worth mentioning. “Liz-Anne” finds Tjader and Getz enshrouded in ambiguity. There is a thick fog of mystery that hangs about, white and frothy as the San Francisco Bay area surf itself. Down-tempo vibraphone and ghostly basslines underscore the tune while Getz takes precedence over the spooky California night. His notes meander; shuffle; sway in nocturnal inebriation.
“Big Bear,” the record’s final Tjader composition, is another “lighter” addition, although seemingly paling in comparison to the previous two Tjader originals; its title presumably being the namesake of the valley area south of San Francisco in San Bernardino County. It is a smoky barroom boogie-type number in contrast to the otherwise meditative collection.
“My Buddy,” the perfect choice for a closer, presents to the listener the best of both worlds, Tjader’s rollicking vibes and Getz’s dreamy soloing, dusky yet proud as the sun, the album’s closing track is a whole lot of fun and ends it all on an easy note.
While Sextet garnered praise online from sites such as Allmusic, I readily accept that the standard jazz aficionado will not enjoy this album in its entirety. Not even a review such as Rolling Stone gave it much credence, which at first puzzled me. How could they not? I thought the record was sublimely gorgeous, incredibly inventive, as well. These were certainly two immensely talented individuals. Getz, after all, went on to achieve mega-success in 1963, when he won a Grammy for Best Jazz Performance for “Desafinado,” and a second Grammy for Record of the Year, along with three other composers, for their recording of “Girl from Ipanema” in 1964. He had several other wins during that decade and one in 1991, the year of his death. He is credited with helping to innovate and popularize the bossa nova genre. Tjader also won a Grammy for Best Latin Recording in 1980 for his 1979 album La Onda Va Bien.
I believe like Bill Evans’s California Here I Come, Sextet is a misunderstood and underrepresented record, except that California Here I Come has gone on to garner a decent amount of praise from some of those who had originally dismissed it back in ‘82. Sextet is not bold like Kind of Blue or Mingus Ah Um, nor is it as culturally or historically significant as Ellington at Newport.It is not as accessible as the work of Tjader’s former bandmate, Dave Brubeck. Both Tjader and Getz saw much, much more success in the years subsequent to 1958 and it is likely that neither ever thought about Sextet after that point. I believe this record is deserving of a review from those people who have not listened and even a fresh review from those who have before and were not necessarily impressed. Recorded and released less than a decade prior to Jack Nitzsche’s peak, as well as Brian Wilson’s emergence as a serious pop composer, I would go as far as to say that Cal Tjader-Stan Getz Sextet is most certainly a significant artifact of an advancing California sound.
Key tracks: Ginza Samba, For All We Know, Crow’s Nest, Liz-Anne
The Case of the 3-Sided Dream in Audio Color – Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Atlantic, 1975)
By the Seventies, the fusion of jazz with funk had become the logical next step for evolving musicians of the genre. While the approach could most notably be heard in the contemporary efforts of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, Ohio-born multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk seemed to have brought more to the musical milieu than many of his contemporaries would have imagined.
Recorded in May 1975, the Ohio native shared with his audience a sprawling epic of absurdist humor and sonic delight on his double LP, The Case of the 3-Sided Dream in Audio Color.
Incorporating elements of funk, blues, swing, boogie woogie, and baroque, as well as tidbits of sometimes amusing dialogue between Kirk and a nefarious mechanical master, The Case of the 3-Sided Dream in Audio Color stands as one of the most intriguing albums of the Seventies.
The amiable ribbon of flute which lends cohesive texture to the album’s masterwork, the collective epic of “Portrait of Those Beautiful Ladies,” is vintage Kirk through and through. Beneath the wind, there thrives a sensual jam, rich with an air of afternoon funk and brass urgency. This track was all it took to turn me on to the entire record.
From the infectiously danceable “High Heel Sneakers” to the velvety blues of “The Entertainer,” any one of these tracks could have served as the score for any drive-in flick of the decade, which is part of its charm. The musical language infused on The Case of the 3-Sided Dream in Audio Color, however experimental in structure and delivery,is creatively universal. “Echoes of Primitive Ohio and Chili Dogs,” the album’s other golden moment, is perhaps one of Kirk’s most surreal, as well as honest compositions.
Yes, the listening effort will be challenging, even maddening, to some, but only because there is so much contemplation occurring within the instrumentation. However, it is worth the effort since at its core, it is an entirely rewarding listen and a crowning achievement for Kirk, who would play his final show at the Indiana University Student Union two years later.
Key tracks: Bye Bye Blackbird, Echoes of Primitive Ohio and Chili Dogs, The Entertainer, Portrait of Those Beautiful Ladies, High Heel Sneakers
Out to Lunch! – Eric Dolphy (Blue Note, 1964)
One of the all-time great posthumous releases,there is really no one who can be compared to Eric Dolphy when he is at his best.
Out to Lunch! offers a wholly unique abundance of sound…quirky, though never pretentiously so, and always inviting. There is a color, texture, and even taste to many of the notes, something to which any listener can likely relate. It is sunny, lively, and constantly in unpredictable motion.
Released in August 1964, a matter of weeks following Dolphy’s early death from diabetic shock, Out to Lunch! is widely considered to be his masterpiece, as well as one of the seminal jazz recordings of the Sixties. To Dolphy’s legacy as a master musician, he composed all the selections on the album.
Album opener “Hat and Beard” (a reference to the great Thelonious Monk) begins subtle enough before the amiable bounce of Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone emerges from the mix and the melody moves into full swing. Tony Williams’s thumping percussion eloquently manages to keep time with Dolphy’s fluttering reed work. The arrangement here is other-worldly, sometimes alarming, and always trademark Dolphy.
Whether advertent or inadvertent, Dolphy’s influence on the decade’s pop records to come is evident on “Something Sweet, Something Tender,” which, in its subtlety, is perhaps my favorite cut on the album. I can hear remnants of the track on Brian Wilson’s “Let’s Go Away for Awhile,” which would be released two years later, as well as on Frank Zappa’s aptly titled “Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue,” recorded with The Mothers of Invention in 1969. The appeal of Dolphy’s sense of personal style, as well as his unorthodox compositional approach, kept his work relevant among the more “disciplined” adherents to the avant-garde trend, allowing for interest in his music to garner a new generation of fans in the following decade.
The mania of “Gazzelloni” and the long, cool march of the title track provides a wider canvas for Dolphy and his group to improvise upon, resulting in two of the genre’s most free-flowing contemplations. It is also worth noting the significance of these songs, as they serve as evidence of Dolphy’s intrinsic kinship to friend, collaborator, and fellow Angeleno, Charles Mingus.
“Straight Up and Down” is one of the tightest jazz compositions of its era and remains my second favorite cut on the record. It might even stand as the culmination of Dolphy’s career-long inspiration, an admirable note on which to go out.
Out to Lunch! is by far one of the most distinctive jazz records of its decade, and, for me personally, serves as a sort of “response” to the “call” made by Mingus Ah Um five years prior. It is a refreshing effort of an enormously talented force of nature snuffed out all to soon – but do not be fooled. There is enough living done on Out to Lunch! to equal that of a millennium.
Key tracks: Hat and Beard, Something Sweet, Something Tender, Straight Up and Down